Congress approves deal to keep government open, fight Zika
(Source: USAToday) WASHINGTON — Congress approved a stop-gap spending deal Wednesday to avert a government shutdown and provide $1.1 billion in long-awaited aid to combat the Zika virus. The House voted 342-85 to pass the legislation, which will keep the government funded through Dec. 9 and give lawmakers time to work out a long-term spending bill for the fiscal 2017 year that begins Saturday. The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 72-26 earlier in the day, clearing the way for Congress to leave town until after the Nov. 8 election. The White House issued a statement Wednesday saying that it supports the compromise bill, which President Obama is poised to sign into law no later than Friday. Without congressional action, federal agencies would have run out of money to operate at midnight Friday, forcing a costly and politically unpopular shutdown just weeks before the election. “This is an acceptable compromise,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Is it perfect? No. Is it necessary? Absolutely…I look forward to keeping the government open.” Democrats had demanded that any funding deal include money to help replace the water system in Flint, Mich., where thousands of children have been poisoned by the city’s lead-contaminated water supply and residents have been forced to bathe in bottled water. Most Democrats, along with a dozen Republicans, defeated efforts Tuesday to pass a government funding bill that did not include Flint aid. However, Democrats agreed to drop their demand Wednesday after receiving assurances from Republican leaders in the Senate and House that Flint will receive money after the election in a sweeping water bill called the Water Resources Development Act. “I’m convinced that there is going to be help for Flint,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., after conferring with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The Senate-passed version of that bill includes $220 million to replace Flint’s water system. The House voted 399-25 on Wednesday to approve its own bill, including an amendment by Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., to provide $170 million for Flint. Negotiators from the House and Senate will work out a final bill in November or December. Senators and House members would then vote on the compromise. “I made it clear (to House leaders) that I was very serious about defending the Senate position…and ensuring that Flint funding remains in the bill,” McConnell said. Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both Democrats, voted against the compromise spending bill Wednesday, saying it’s unfair that Flint residents have to wait longer for help than other disaster victims. The bill provides $500 million in immediate aid to flood victims in Louisiana, West Virginia and Maryland. “My position on the government funding bill remains the same: I will vote no on any (bill) that does not treat communities equally,” Stabenow said. “It is wrong to ask families in Flint to wait at the back of the line again.” The controversy over Flint was the last major stumbling block to an agreement to keep the government open. An earlier dispute between Republicans and Democrats over Zika funding was resolved last week when Republicans agreed to provide $1.1 billion to combat the virus without “poison pill” provisions that would have prevented Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico from receiving federal funds and waived environmental laws governing the use of pesticides. Zika is spread by mosquitoes and through sexual contact. President Obama has been calling on Congress since February to approve Zika funding. He had sought $1.9 billion. The bill approved Wednesday includes full 2017 funding of more than $82 billion for military construction and veterans programs and about $7 million over the next 10 weeks to begin paying for new programs approved by Congress to fight heroin addiction and prescription painkiller abuse. Mikulski said Democrats were not able to convince Republicans to remove a provision that blocks a Securities and Exchange Commission regulation from taking effect. The proposed rule would have required corporations to disclose their political campaign contributions in their annual financial reports to stockholders. “Americans are fed up with dark money dominating our elections, and the least we can do about it is require public companies to give an accounting to their own shareholders about how much they’re spending on campaigns,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who voted against the funding bill because of the provision.