Senate Democrats are pressing for funding for water cleanup in Flint, Mich. If no one blinks, another government shutdown could be in the offing.
The Senate on Tuesday defeated a procedural step to force action on the bill to fund government operations in the new fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1. In the 40-59 vote, Democratic senators were unified in opposition and they were joined by 13 Republicans who voted to continue debate for a host of their own reasons.
As senators subsequently discussed, their failure to deal with the funding bill had virtually nothing to do with continuing operations of federal agencies and programs until Dec. 9. Instead, senators were seizing on the must-pass bill in an attempt to secure other legislative objectives. For many Democrats, their chief priority has become final congressional approval of an earlier Senate-passed bill to help Flint, Mich., clean lead from its water supply.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she was using the opportunity to press for action by the House, where some Republican leaders have raised objections to the assistance for Flint. "That is called leverage," she told the Senate. "Show me that there won't be a poison pill [by the House]….You can have this [funding bill] in two minutes."
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said he had received a commitment from House Republicans on including the aid for Flint this year in a separate water-resources bill. He urged opponents to drop their objections to the short-term funding bill. "It is time for us to stop playing politics on this issue," he said.
But Democrats refused to back down and they blamed Senate Republicans for the thin legislative record this year. "Congress is dysfunctional," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) complained. Ironically, he had objected moments earlier to Senate approval of a bipartisan bill to encourage investment in broadband services. Reid complained that GOP colleagues had reneged on an earlier pledge to confirm an additional term on the Federal Communications Commission for Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic commissioner.
The prospect of another perils-of-Pauline battle to continue federal operations has drawn attention beyond Capitol Hill. "I write to express in the strongest terms possible my dismay that Congress has failed to restore 'regular order,' once again failed to timely fulfill its constitutional fiduciary duties for the nation, and once again has brought our country to the brink of a government shutdown," Senior Executives Association President Bill Valdez wrote in a Sept. 27 letter to all senators.
Using short-hand for the so-called "continuing resolution" for spending, Valdez added, "CR Hell is an appropriate term, as the perennial inability of the Legislative Branch to fulfill its most basic duties -- to budget and appropriate funds -- stymies Executive Branch decision-making."
If the House and Senate fail to agree this week on the 10-week extension, legislators might approve an alternative of funding for a few days while they continue their negotiations.
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