RUNNING OUT OF TIME: Congress’ return highlighted by fights to keep gov’t. running, fund Zika prevention

Lawmakers return Tuesday to Capitol Hill for a short election-season session in which their main — though politically daunting — objective will be providing money to keep the government running, with outside hopes of providing funding to fight the growing, mosquito-borne Zika virus.

The House and Senate will have less than four weeks to passing a temporary spending bill, known as a continuing resolution, to keep the entire federal government operating past October 1.

Democrats and Republicans, after a seven-week summer recess, are indeed eager to pass such a bill to avoid being blamed for a government shutdown like the one in 2013 — with control of the White House and Senate at stake, as well as all 435 House seats on the ballot.

However, disagreement between the parties and within the GOP will, as in years past, likely result in political wrangling until the deadline.

Conservatives, and even Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, want a package that lasts until next March, which would prevent such negotiations in a so-called “lame duck” congressional session in November with a newly-elected president and Congress.

However, the consensus among leaders in both parties appears to be a temporary measure through December.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said last week that he and fellow Democrat in the chamber won’t support a spending plan that runs beyond Christmas.

“We are not doing anything into next year, and every Republican should be aware of that right now,” the Nevada Democrat said.

Because the shutdown-prevention measure simply has to pass, it’s a tempting target for lawmakers seeking to use it as a vehicle for their preferences. For instance, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., is pressing for emergency grants to help communities in his flood-ravaged state to recover.

“I hope we can accomplish that in September,” Cassidy said.

Lawmakers left Washington in July without resolving a dispute over money for Zika. The virus can cause severe birth defects and is linked to a host of other maladies.

The Senate is making the issue its first order of business — holding a procedural vote on Tuesday.

Obama asked Congress in February for $1.9 billion in emergency money, but legislation to partially pay for his proposal collapsed in July amid various fights. Among them was a Republican provision to deny money to Puerto Rican affiliates of Planned Parenthood.

Voters in Florida, where the virus is spreading from Puerto Rico, meanwhile, are blaming Republicans for the lack of additional funding and for taking such a long break amid such a major health concern.

GOP leaders probably will try to keep the spending bill as free of unrelated additions as possible, especially now. If GOP leaders were to grant Cassidy’s request, it would make it more difficult to say no to others, such as Democrats seeking money for fixing the lead-tainted water system of Flint, Michigan.

House conservatives also are looking to press ahead with impeaching IRS Commissioner John Koskinen over the destruction of agency emails and misleading testimony on whether the tax agency, before his arrival, improperly scrutinized conservative groups seeking nonprofit status.

The impeachment drive is a headache for Republicans who believe that Koskinen’s conduct isn’t serious enough to warrant impeachment, but who may be reluctant to support the Democratic appointee in such a politically charged environment.

In a recent memo, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said lawmakers will take up legislation regarding the Obama administration’s $400 million payment to Iran in January, made immediately after four U.S. prisoners were released.

The payment, for undelivered arms to the shah of Iran, was made on the same day of the prisoner release, and Republicans call it “ransom.”

The as-yet-unreleased legislation is designed to prevent a repeat, but seems like an election-season messaging effort.

In addition, House Republican leaders recently conducted a half-hour conference call with their rank-and-file member about a September game plan.

However, sources familiar with the call said the leaders offered few specifics on their strategy on such big issues as Zika, funding the government and the possible Koskinen impeachment effort.

“It was the least informative call I’ve ever been on,” groused one Republican lawmaker.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also wants to advance a popular water-projects measure.

But the priority is to simply adjourn the chamber to allow embattled incumbents such as Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Richard Burr, R-NC, to get back home and campaign for re-election against the political headwinds created by Trump.

The abbreviated session should give GOP-run committees a final pre-election chance to hold hearings on the Obama administration and other targets such as EpiPen manufacturer Mylan, N.V.

That company has come under withering criticism for steep price increases for its life-saving injector, which can stop potentially fatal allergic reactions to insect bites and stings, and foods such as peanuts and eggs.

House Republicans are promising hearings on Hillary Clinton’s emails. FBI Director James Comey criticized Clinton’s use of a homebrew email server to handle sensitive work-related emails as “extremely careless,” but said his agency’s yearlong investigation found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Republicans now are demanding that the Justice Department open a new investigation into whether Clinton lied during testimony last year before the House Benghazi committee.

They claim the FBI note may show Clinton provided inconsistent answers to questions about her handling of emails containing classified information.

Fox News’ Chad Pergram and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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