Congress started the month with a long to-do list, but it left town Thursday for seven weeks with most of it unfinished.
The House and Senate on Thursday wrapped up business for the summer without finalizing legislation to combat the Zika virus, addressing the recent string of gun violence or making significant progress toward completing this year’s budget work.
In what has become a familiar ritual, Democrats and Republicans pointed the finger at each other over who is to blame. It’s a gamble by leaders in both parties that voters will hold the other side accountable for gridlock come November.
The issue drawing the most attention is the failure to provide funding for efforts to combat the Zika virus, which causes birth defects and has spread through South America and the Caribbean.
The House and Senate both passed bills to provide the funding, but a bipartisan deal on a final package could not be struck. On Thursday, Democrats for the second time blocked a $1.1 billion funding package arguing it contains “poison pill” measures, such as restrictions on Planned Parenthood, and is paid for by ill advised cuts to other federal health programs.
The legislation passed the House last month without support from Democrats.
“We passed a perfectly responsible piece of legislation — the funding level that everyone agreed to, the contents of the bill that people think is wise,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Thursday. “The Democrats for some reason or another decided to play politics with it.”
Congressional Democrats and the White House scoffed at this assessment charging Republicans could drop their controversial policy riders if they really wanted to enact the spending.
“Now it’s clear that [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)] has been stringing us along,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the floor this week. “He never had any intention of coming back to the negotiating table. Republicans have no desire to work with us to get a bipartisan Zika funding bill to the President – now, or any time in the future. It’s all been a charade.”
Health officials have warned that the $589 million the Obama administration redirected from fighting Ebola to combating Zika earlier this year is insufficient and that the failure to approve new funding is holding up work on creating a vaccine as well as other needed steps.
Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan and Department of Health and Human Services Director Sylvia M. Burwell wrote Republican leaders Wednesday pressing them to pass a Zika package before the recess.
“Failure to do so will significantly impede the Administration’s ability to prepare for and respond to a possible local transmission in the United States and Hawaii and address a growing health crisis in Puerto Rico,” they wrote.
The two sides have been warring in recent weeks, in part, over a provision that would bar Planned Parenthood from receiving any of the funds. Democrats generally object to any attempt to cut federal funding for the women’s health group, but they have been particularly incensed in this case because the Zika virus is spread through sexual activity.
“Republicans have unfortunately chosen to put their ideological battles against Planned Parenthood and women’s health providers ahead of the health needs of women and children nationwide,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in a statement.
Public health groups chided Congress for the lack of action.
“The spread of Zika virus has created a public health emergency that needs to be addressed now,” Chrissie Juliano, director of the Big Cities Health Coalition, said in a statement. The group represents public health departments.
Republican leaders on Thursday were eager to highlight one major piece of legislation that did get done this month: A bill to help treat and prevent heroin and prescription-drug abuse.
“There’s a lot that we’ve been doing,” Ryan said, singling out the opioid-abuse legislation as well as transportation and education bills cleared earlier this year. “And in divided government, there’s some things we just won’t agree on, and then we will propose alternatives.”
The opioid measure has been a top priority for both parties, but while Democrats supported the legislation they argued Republicans have failed to provide the needed funding that will allow it to be effective.
It isn’t unusual for Congress to leave town for its annual August recess with some business left unfinished, but its schedule has been cut short this year by the election, providing less time to complete work on key issues when lawmakers return in September.
While Republican leaders earlier this year highlighted their desire to run a smooth budget process to avoid the year-end drama of years past, work on spending bills has stalled in recent weeks. Congress must now pass a stopgap spending bill before Sept. 30 to avoid a government shutdown.
Democrats blamed Republicans for loading the spending bills with controversial policy provisions on issues such as clean water regulations, the nuclear agreement with Iran and the display of the Confederate flag at cemeteries run by the Veterans Affairs Department
Senate Republicans in turn have called up bills to fund the military and veterans programs and when they are blocked, they charge Democrats are insensitive to the needs of soldiers and veterans.
Negotiations over a stopgap spending bill in September may not be easy. House conservatives are pushing for the legislation to kick final spending decisions into next year, worried that leaders will try to cram a massive omnibus appropriations bill through Congress following the election.
Congress is also at an impasse over how to respond to the recent gun violence that has rattled the country.
Democrats have been pushing gun-control measures since last month’s deadly mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, demanding legislation to prevent suspected terrorists from acquiring firearms and to expand mandatory background checks.
In the Senate, no proposal to prevent suspected terrorists from buying a gun could garner enough support to advance in the chamber.
In the House, Democrats staged a sit-in on the chamber floor to pressure Republicans to hold a vote on gun bills.
House GOP leaders declined to consider those measures and instead opted to introduce a counterterrorism bill that included a National Rifle Association-backed provision to stop suspected terrorist from buying guns in cases where there was probable cause.
But that package stalled as conservatives balked, citing concerns about Second Amendment rights and whether other aspects of the bill needlessly added to the national security bureaucracy. Many also saw any vote on a gun-control measure as rewarding Democrats for their floor protest.
Following the shooting deaths of five police officers in Dallas last week by a sniper, Ryan and other Republican leaders said it was best to pause rather than risk further inflaming tensions by having a raucous gun-control debate in Congress — a move Democrats criticized.
Members were also struggling with how to respond to concerns about racial tensions between police and some of the communities they serve following the shooting deaths last week of two black men — Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota — by white police officers, which proceeded the shootings in Dallas.
While there was little agreement over how Congress can deal with the issue, there was bipartisan praise for Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the chamber’s only black Republican.
He came to the floor Wednesday and spoke about his personal experiences with racial profiling, being pulled over by police and being challenged by authorities even at the Capitol who have questioned whether he is a senator when entering buildings.
“There’s a deep divide between the black community and law enforcement — a trust gap,” Scott said on the floor. “I do not know many African American men who do not have a very similar story to tell, no matter their profession, no matter their income, no matter their disposition in life.”
The praise heaped on Scott for his speech provided some sense of optimism Congress could find common ground on the issue.
“They’re certainly more interested in the issue than they were before, I think,” Scott said of his colleagues on Thursday.