GOP faces choices on Zika, shutdown, impeaching IRS chief
WASHINGTON — Congress' Republican leaders face decisions on averting a federal shutdown, containing the Zika virus and impeaching the head of the IRS, with approaching elections pressuring the GOP to avoid doing anything that could damage its standing with voters.
House Republicans were meeting behind closed doors Wednesday to hash out strategy on those and other issues. GOP leaders, hoping to retain Senate and House majorities in November's elections and maximize Donald Trump's prospects for winning the White House, aim to send Congress home by September's end so lawmakers can campaign.
In what's been a post-summer fixture for Congress, Republicans and Democrats remain divided over federal expenditures. Lawmakers have a long way to go to complete spending legislation to keep agencies functioning after Sept. 30.
With zero chance of completing all 12 spending bills by then, the key questions are how many weeks a temporary spending package will last — and whether the GOP can garner enough votes for such a measure without triggering a government shutdown sure to enrage voters.
Some conservatives want spending to be temporarily extended into next year. That would avert settling the issue during a post-election, lame-duck session in December, when they believe retiring lawmakers who don't have to face voters again are more inclined to accept wasteful spending.
But President Barack Obama and Senate Democrat oppose that idea. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has said he wants to keep negotiating into the fall on full-year spending measures.
"I'm sure we'll have a successful outcome to make sure just that the trains are running on time," Ryan told hometown radio host Stan Milam of AM 1380 in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Tuesday.
Late Tuesday, the Senate used its first vote since returning to recess to highlight that partisan battling over financing the battle against Zika remains as bitter as ever.
For the third time this year, Senate Democrats blocked a Republican measure to battle the virus. A 52-46 vote to advance the money fell short of the 60 votes needed as Democrats opposed provisions blocking Zika prevention and treatment money from going to Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico.
Republicans called that a shaky excuse compared to the threat of the mosquito-carried Zika virus. No. 3 Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said the GOP was using the bill "to assuage the hard right."
There have been dozens of Zika cases in the political battleground state of Florida. Tuesday's vote might prod Republicans to attach Zika money to temporary spending legislation.
Part of the spending fight is over the Pentagon. Republicans want to use emergency war funds to artificially increase the basic defense budget by $16 billion next year.
The Obama administration and its Democratic allies oppose the idea, saying if Republicans want more money for defense, domestic programs will have to receive an equal boost. Senate Democrats also blocked that measure from advancing Tuesday.
Still unclear is how GOP leaders will handle conservatives' demands that the House impeach John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner.
Enraged over the IRS' aggressive inquiries into tea party groups seeking tax exemptions, conservatives want the House to vote on whether Koskinen should be removed from office.
Their resolution accuses him of offenses including not cooperating with congressional subpoenas for documents and making false statements to Congress about destroyed emails in the probe. Koskinen has said the charges are without substance.
Ryan and other GOP leaders have shown little fervor for an election-season impeachment fight. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters Tuesday that while the IRS made "real mistakes," there are "different beliefs" Republicans must resolve about whether impeachment is the proper course.
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