Congress Approves Spending Bill, Averting Government Shutdown

Sep 29, 2016
In The News

WASHINGTON — Congress averted a government shutdown Wednesday as the Senate and then the House approved a short-term spending bill, allowing lawmakers to avoid a crisis and return home to campaign.

The stopgap spending bill, which would fund the government through Dec. 9, had been ensnarled in a debate over financing for the lead-tainted water system in Flint, Mich.

But an agreement between congressional leaders late Tuesday — which would authorize aid for Flint as part of separate legislation for water infrastructure projects — appeared to ameliorate Democratic concerns, clearing the way for the Senate to pass the spending bill, 72 to 26. The House followed suit late Wednesday, approving the measure 342 to 85.

In addition to keeping the government funded at current levels, the bill provides $1.1 billion to fight the Zika virus, without the restrictions on Planned Parenthood clinics that foiled earlier negotiations. It also includes funding for military infrastructure, housing and other services.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said Wednesday that he felt “very comfortable” with reassurances from Republicans that the House deal would result in aid for Flint.

“I’m convinced that there’s going to be help for Flint in the lame duck,” he said before the vote, referring to the session of Congress after the presidential election in November.

Michigan’s two senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both Democrats, opposed the bill. Ms. Stabenow said that while she was heartened by the movement on the House side, she would oppose any spending measure “that does not treat communities equally,” an apparent reference to emergency funding for flood-ravaged places in Louisiana, Maryland and West Virginia.

“It is wrong to ask families in Flint to wait at the back of the line again,” she said in a statement.

Passage of the spending bill allowed Congress to avoid a shutdown like the one in 2013 that brought government operations across the country to a halt for 16 days. Members deplored the need for another last-minute, temporary spending bill.

“I have said many times before, standing in this exact spot, that acontinuing resolution is a last resort,” Representative Harold Rogers, Republican of Kentucky and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said on the House floor, referring to the short-term spending bill. “But at this point, it is what we must do to fulfill our congressional responsibility to keep the lights on in our government.”

After the Senate passed the measure Wednesday afternoon, House leaders quickly worked to schedule their vote for the evening. The bill passed despite opposition from some conservatives who objected to additional spending, as well as from a number of Democrats who remained skeptical that Republicans would fully appropriate the money for Flint when lawmakers returned after the election.

The deal that unclogged the pipeline came from an unlikely place: the House of Representatives. The agreement hinges on an amendment to a water projects bill, the Water Resources Development Act, which would authorize $170 million in spending to communities such as Flint where the president has declared a state of emergency because of contaminants like lead. A version of that bill, which approved more than $200 million for Flint and other poor communities struggling with lead contamination,passed the Senate this month.

The House passed that bill earlier Wednesday evening, setting up a meeting between congressional leaders to resolve the differences between the Senate and House versions of the water projects legislation, discrepancies that include the amount of funding for Flint and whether the funding is set aside or simply authorized.

But that conference meeting is not expected to happen until lawmakers return after the election, which left some Democrats uneasy. The 45-member Congressional Black Caucus recently vowed to oppose any stopgap spending bill that did not include funding for Flint.

The group’s chairman, Representative G. K. Butterfield, Democrat of North Carolina, said they were disappointed that Democratic leaders had agreed to a deal that relied primarily on the word of their Republican counterparts.

“The question is, are we willing to accept the promise of the Republican leadership that it will come out in conference?” he said in an interview Wednesday.

But he said there was growing confidence among Democrats that Republicans would keep their word to ensure that Flint aid was appropriated as part of continuing discussions. Mr. Butterfield said he believed most of the caucus would ultimately support the bill.

“We can’t shut down the government, that’s for sure,” he said.

The House Freedom Caucus, a conservative faction with some 40 members, presented their own objections to the deal, including what they saw as high levels of government spending.

But some members also criticized that the spending deal will expire during the lame-duck session, when some members will simply be biding their time until the new Congress is sworn in — or that final flight home.

In a release from the Office of Management and Budget, the Obama administration expressed support for the Zika funding and the movement toward funding for Flint and other communities, urging lawmakers to take immediate action upon returning from the election to provide that aid.