McConnell releases stopgap spending bill, anti-Zika funds
WASHINGTON — The Senate's top Republican on Thursday unveiled legislation to prevent a government shutdown next weekend and provide more than $1 billion to battle the Zika virus. It also would provide $500 million to help Louisiana rebuild from last month's devastating floods.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the stopgap measure was "clean" of controversies and he left out internet-related language demanded by Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
But Democrats immediately blasted the proposal for failing to fund one of their top priorities: money to help Flint, Michigan, repair its lead-tainted water system.
McConnell's move could set up a showdown vote next week. Democrats said they would likely filibuster the measure since it omits a bipartisan plan to provide $220 million to help Flint and other cities with lead emergencies replace pipes and take other steps to clean their water.
"To see the (stopgap funding bill) come to the floor with help for Louisiana and not for the families of Flint is outrageous," said Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. "And I will do everything in my power to make sure that this does not happen." She noted that the Flint aid has been many months in the making and is financed by spending cuts, while funding for flood aid in Louisiana is added directly to the national debt.
McConnell said the measure is "the result of many, many hours of bipartisan work across the aisle," noting that it would also allow stepped up spending to combat opioid abuse — a priority of several Senate Republicans who are up for re-election, such as Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Rob Portman of Ohio. It also contains the budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
McConnell's bill is drawn from weeks of negotiations. Those talks, however, failed to produce an agreement as the sides wrangled over campaign finance disclosures, Flint, and an administration proposal to allow the Export-Import Bank to finance larger transactions and help overseas customers of companies like Boeing and General Electric purchase U.S. products.
The internet provision was an unusual instance where the Trump campaign inserted itself directly into the nitty-gritty of legislative negotiations under way on Capitol Hill. But Trump's intervention, in the form of a statement from a senior adviser on Wednesday, apparently carried no weight with McConnell, who left out the language Trump wanted without ever even mentioning anything about it in public.
Cruz, with Trump's backing, wanted to block the government from going ahead with a transition of the U.S. Commerce Department's role in governing the internet's domain name addressing systems that would transfer responsibility to a nonprofit consortium known as ICANN.
Cruz said foreign governments such as China would potentially gain influence over content on the internet. Experts in the field, however, said his concerns were mostly groundless.
The stopgap spending bill needs to pass to prevent the government from shutting down next Friday at midnight. Republicans control Congress and have taken the blame for previous shutdowns, such as one that shuttered the government for 16 days in 2013.
But McConnell drafted the measure in hopes of making it as difficult as possible for Democrats to filibuster. For instance, it retains a top McConnell priority, to block the SEC from requiring corporations to disclose political spending permitted under the Supreme Court's 2010 decision allowing unlimited political spending by businesses. That would extend a current ban that McConnell won last December — but that Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Democrats were eager to reverse.
"They're all about protecting big, dark money donors," said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
The $1.1 billion to battle the Zika virus is long overdue and has been held up by a series of battles and setbacks. In the end, however, McConnell dropped controversial provisions that would have blocked Planned Parenthood's affiliates in Puerto Rico from being eligible for new Zika treatment and prevention funds. He also dropped a House bill to ease Clean Water Act rules on pesticide spraying.
Top Democratic negotiator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland urged further talks on the bill, which she said was a "Republican-only bill."
"We Democrats cannot vote for that substitute and urge others to vote against it," she said on the floor. "What we want to be sure is we avoid a government shutdown and a government showdown, and continue the constructive talks that we've had. But the substitute offered by the Republican majority leader falls short."
Democrats supported flood aid for Louisiana but hoped to pair that money with overdue funding to help Flint clean up its water. GOP leaders in both House and Senate, however, promised that Flint funding would be handled in a separate water projects measure that would be finalized in the lame duck session.
"This is a very good first step" on Louisiana flood aid,"said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La. "It can be used to help people with housing, help get people back to work, and rebuild communities."
The administration's proposal on the Export-Import Bank was dropped. The bank will continue to be hobbled without enough board members to produce a quorum and will continue to be blocked from approving transactions exceeding $10 million.