Obama, Hill leaders meet ahead of federal funding deadline
President Barack Obama and congressional leaders plan to sit down Monday to find a way to avert a government shutdown at month's end, with money all but gone to address the worsening Zika crisis. In advance of the session, the White House gave a harsh assessment of chances for working out a solution with Republicans congressional leaders.
Reasonable people could probably figure out a solution "in a couple of hours," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. "Unfortunately, they're stuck with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan," he added, referring to the Republican leaders in the Senate and House.
The White House meeting Monday afternoon, which will include GOP and Democratic congressional leaders, is likely to focus on an emerging legislative compromise to address both how to keep the government open and the Zika situation. Long-sought provisions to provide money to deal with Zika look likely to be added to a must-pass spending bill to fund the government through Dec. 9.
Conservative opposition remains, but negotiators worked through the weekend on the details. The Zika money has stalled since Obama first requested $1.9 billion in February, but congressional Republican leaders seem likely to jettison provisions opposed by Democrats restricting any of the money from going to affiliates of Planned Parenthood in Puerto Rico.
It comes as government scientists step up their warnings about the spread of the virus, which can cause devastating birth defects. More than 670 pregnant women in the states and Washington, D.C., have the virus, leading to the birth of at least 17 babies with microcephaly so far.
On Friday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Thomas Frieden said that "we are now essentially out of money" and warned that the country is "about to see a bunch of kids born with microcephaly" in the coming months.
Obama, just back from a trip to Asia, invited the GOP leaders, House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell, and their counterparts, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.
The lawmakers have been back from a seven-week summer recess for only a week but already are eager to depart again so that vulnerable lawmakers of both parties can campaign for re-election. The government funding bill is the only must-pass piece of legislation ahead of the election and thus has become the vehicle for the Zika provisions.
Also on the agenda for the president and legislators: a request from Louisiana's governor for $2.8 billion in federal assistance to help the state recover from devastating flooding. State officials hope the money, up from $2 billion that Gov. John Bel Edwards had requested just Friday, will be part of the must-pass spending legislation.
Obama's priorities for a lame-duck postelection session of Congress will also be on the table Monday afternoon at the White House. Chief among these is Obama's one major remaining foreign policy priority, the 12-nation Asia free-trade Trans-Pacific Partnership. During his recent trip to Asia, Obama repeatedly called on Congress to pass what the White House considers a legacy-burnishing deal.
Earnest said there are so many issues that need attention that "it's hard to rank them in priority order because so many of them are important."
Despite longstanding support for free trade among Capitol Hill Republicans, including Ryan and McConnell, there is now bipartisan opposition to the deal in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail, where Donald Trump has railed against it and Democrat Hillary Clinton reversed herself under pressure from the Democratic base and now opposes it.
Ryan has offered assurances to rank-and-file GOP lawmakers that the TPP deal will not move in the lame-duck session, and McConnell has also indicated chances are slim in the Senate.
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