Coming off a long summer break, Congress returns today to several realities it left unfinished in June. While a Water Resources bill is the top opportunity for infrastructure policy, other pressing issues may take precedence. In the warm months since leaving town, the Zika virus has spread across Florida and its reach is expected to continue growing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are expected to run out of funds to combat the virus by the end of this month. Legislation to provide additional funding has stalled while legislators clash over Republicans’ inclusion of a prohibition on funding going to family planning medical clinics.
In a case of reoccurring déjà vu, Congress must also pass a bill to fund government agencies, before fiscal year 2016 funding expires on September 30th. Congress is meant to pass 12 separate appropriations bills each year to fund the federal government, but this rarely happens. Instead spending bills are usually combined into a single “omnibus” bill. If Congress thinks it won’t be able to pass an appropriations bill(s) before the end of the fiscal year, it passes a continuing resolution (CR) which extends the previous year’s funding levels with minor changes. With the House having passed only five appropriations bills and the Senate having only passed three, they are now expected to turn their focus to a CR. The length of the CR is up for debate.
For some Senate Republicans, who are in jeopardy of losing Senate control to Democrats, passing a longer-term (i.e. six month) CR would mean “giving away the store” to Democrats. They would prefer a two-month CR, leaving them in the majority for passing an omnibus during a lame-duck session. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) would also like a short-term CR and has said he opposes any bill that goes past December. Outside conservative groups and some House Republicans want a longer-term deal—at least in to the new year/new Congress—to avoid a year-end deal-making session between a lame-duck Congress and a lame-duck President in which Democrats could force Republicans to accept additional spending or risk a shutdown at Christmastime.
One glimmer of hope in all the legislative fights left on the calendar is consideration of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016. Each chamber has passed a version of the major water infrastructure bill out of committee and the bill now awaits floor action. In an election cycle that generally sees political messaging bills over bipartisan infrastructure bills, moving a WRDA would be an exception. WRDA bills authorize important navigation, flood control and ecosystem restoration projects and studies at the Army Corps of Engineers. The Senate bill (S. 2848) also included several drinking water and clean water infrastructure programs.
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