Senate passes stopgap spending bill, $1.1B to fight Zika

Published 4:53 pm Wednesday, September 28, 2016

By Andrew Taylor

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — Averting an election-year crisis, the Senate on Wednesday passed a bill to keep the government operating through Dec. 9 and provide $1.1 billion in long-delayed funding to battle the Zika virus. The House was poised to act on the measure before day’s end.

The sweeping 72-26 vote came after top congressional leaders broke through a stalemate over aid to help Flint, Michigan, address its water crisis. Democratic advocates for Flint are now satisfied with Republican assurances that money for Flint will be finalized after the election.

The hybrid spending measure is the last major item on Capitol Hill’s pre-election agenda and caps months of wrangling over money to fight the mosquito-borne Zika virus. The spending bill also includes $500 million for rebuilding assistance to flood-ravaged Louisiana and other states.

Both the House and Senate in rapid succession also overrode President Barack Obama’s veto of legislation to allow families of Sept. 11 victims sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged backing of the attackers, handing him the first veto override of his presidency.

Determined to return home and campaign, the House was expected to approve the spending bill as early as Wednesday night and send it to Obama for his signature. Congress won’t return to Washington until the week after Election Day.

The House is also set to approve a water development projects bill after a compromise late Tuesday on a $170 million Flint aid package brokered by Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other top leaders.

The deal averts a potential federal shutdown and comes just three days before the midnight deadline. It defuses a lengthy, frustrating battle over Zika spending. Democrats claimed a partial victory on Flint while the GOP-dominated Louisiana delegation won a down-payment on Obama’s $2.6 billion request for their state.

The politicking and power plays enormously complicated what should have been a routine measure to avoid an election-eve government shutdown.

The temporary government-wide spending bill stalled in the Senate Tuesday over Democrats’ demands that the measure include $220 million in Senate-passed funding to help Flint and other cities deal with lead-tainted water. Democrats said they were not willing to accept a promise that Flint funding would come after the election, but by Wednesday top Democrats like Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., agreed to address the water crisis in the separate water development bill.

The Senate version of the water measure passed earlier this month, and top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell on Wednesday gave renewed assurances that the more generous Senate Flint measure would prevail. The House measure authorizes aid to Flint but anticipates the actual money won’t come until the final House-Senate version of water measure passes in the postelection lame duck session.

Democrats argued it’s unfair that the water crisis in Flint has gone on for more than a year with no assistance, while Louisiana and other states are getting $500 million for floods that occurred just last month. Democrats have played a strong hand in the negotiations and had leverage because Republicans controlling the House and Senate were eager to avoid a politically harmful shutdown some six weeks before the election.

Many House Republicans have resisted helping Flint, arguing that the city’s problems are a local issue and that many cities have problems with aging water systems.

Flint’s drinking water became tainted when the city, then under state control, began drawing from the Flint River in 2014 to save money. Regulators failed to ensure the water was treated properly and lead from aging pipes leached into the water supply. As many as 12,000 children have been exposed to lead in water, officials say

Charges of racism and campaign-season antagonism between Republicans and Democrats had slowed efforts to pass the spending measure. Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, Flint’s congressman, had accused Republicans of ignoring the plight of impoverished, predominantly black Flint residents after Republicans would not permit a vote on a Senate aid package to deliver the money now.

But Wednesday morning Kildee issued a statement that called the upcoming vote on the non-binding, $170 million promise for Flint “a step forward to ensuring that Flint families get the resources they need to recover from this crisis.” The $220 million Senate measure, which passed earlier this month, earmarked $120 million for Flint.

The amendment represents a bipartisan agreement authorizing the funding, but the actual money would await the final House-Senate version of the bill after the November election.

The spending bill also includes full-year funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

McConnell has made numerous concessions in weeks of negotiations, agreeing, for instance, to drop contentious provisions tied to Zika funding that led Democrats to block prior Zika measures. A provision to make Planned Parenthood ineligible for new anti-Zika funding for Puerto Rico was dropped, as was a provision to ease pesticide regulations under the Clean Water Act. Democrats relented on a $400 million package of spending cuts.