The U.S. Congress lurched closer to a government shutdown Tuesday as the Senate failed to advance a short-term spending bill.
Democrats blocked a bill that would extend federal spending authority into December. Unless Congress acts, that authority expires at midnight Friday, the end of the current fiscal year, and non-essential government services would be suspended, less than six weeks before the November elections.
Republicans and Democrats blamed each other for the turn of events, which saw the stopgap spending bill fall 15 votes short of the three-fifths backing needed to advance in the Senate.
“Can it really be that Democratic leaders have embraced dysfunction so thoroughly that they’d tank a noncontroversial 10-week funding bill over what, exactly?” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. “Does anybody know what the issue is? Do they [Democrats] even know? The rationale seems to change by the hour.”
“The Republican legislation misses the mark,” asserted Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Democrats objected to a provision that would weaken disclosure requirements for corporations that contribute to political campaigns. They also complained that the bill contains no funding to eliminate lead contamination from drinking water in Flint, Michigan, a hazard that began two years ago.
“One hundred thousand people ingesting lead,” said Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin. “Imagine 9,000 children in Flint poisoned with lead-contaminated water. That happened. In that poor city they are still drinking water out of bottles every single day.”
Republicans countered that they fully intend to provide funds for Flint, but will do so in separate legislation that deals specifically with water safety, not a short-term spending bill for the entire government.
Republicans see election-year politics in play, alleging that Democrats believe their chances of winning control of the Senate will be boosted if Republicans are seen as unable to fulfill basic legislative functions.
“Democrats are marching us down a path that leads to a shutdown in order to gain some sort of political advantage,” said Texas Republican John Cornyn. “What a terrible thing to do to this country.”
But Democrats see a double standard, noting that the spending bill does not address Flint’s water crisis but does contain funds to help flood-ravaged Louisiana.
“I’m happy to support Louisiana,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. “If, in fact, the people of Flint have to wait again, then the people of Louisiana can join them in that wait till the end of the year.”
Fiscal drama is nothing new in Washington, where federal shutdowns have either been threatened or actually occurred in five of the last six years.
Funding the government is supposed to be an orderly process in which Congress appropriates yearlong federal spending in a series of bills covering a multitude of departments and agencies.
With Democrats and Republicans unable to agree on spending levels, Congress has been forced to enact catch-all bills weeks or months into the new fiscal year, and often needs a stopgap funding extension to get the work done.
“This is not the way the Senate’s supposed to work, but this is the hand we’ve been dealt because of their [Democrats’] obstruction,” Cornyn complained.
Democrats accuse their Republican colleagues of hypocrisy, noting that Republicans regularly blocked bills when they were in the minority in the Senate.