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Congress Faces Looming Deadline To Prevent Government Shutdown


Congress is back today after a seven-week summer break, but blink, and you may miss lawmakers. Next month they'll disappear from Washington again in order to campaign. Between now and then, they'll have to figure out how to avoid a government shutdown and how to fund the public health battle against the Zika virus. With us to talk about all this is NPR's congressional correspondent Ailsa Chang. Hey there, Ailsa.


CORNISH: So of course we're in an election year. Please tell me there is not seriously a threat of a government shutdown.

CHANG: (Laughter) Probably not, especially with the government funding deadline being so close to the elections - September 30. It's really in everyone's interests to get a spending bill passed with as little drama as possible. But you know, then again, this is Congress, and there could still be a fight.

CORNISH: OK, (laughter) then again, this is Congress, is not good enough answer.

CHANG: (Laughter).

CORNISH: What would the fight actually be about then?

CHANG: Actually it would mainly be about how long the spending bill runs. It's definitely going to be a short-term measure, but right now a group of conservative House Republicans want that measure to last six months into late-March of next year. What they don't want is a shorter-term measure that would expire mid-December of this year.

And the reason any of this makes any difference at all is because if Congress passes a spending bill that lasts only through mid-December, it would mean lawmakers would have to pass another spending bill before President Obama leaves office. And what many House conservatives fear is that that would lead to a flurry of last-minute deal making and concessions to the president while everyone's scrambling to leave for the holidays.

The Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, said he wants a measure that would last only into December and that he wants that bill to contain funding for Zika.

CORNISH: Now, I want to talk more about that Zika funding because lawmakers have been fighting over this for months, and it seems like the situation here in the U.S. has not necessarily improved in that time, right?

CORNISH: I mean how...

CHANG: Right.

CORNISH: ...Will Congress resolve this impasse?

CHANG: Well, there's hopefulness on both sides. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just announced that the 20 - the $222 million they've been using to deal with this will be depleted by the end of September. Then again, we've been hearing about the urgency of Zika funding since President Obama requested emergency aid back in February. That was seven months ago. Lawmakers have been fighting about it ever since then. And now they say they want to come up with a solution in just under four weeks. So we'll see if that happens.

I mean the main problem Democrats have with the current Zika bill which has already failed to pass more than once is that it prevents Planned Parenthood from getting any of the funds provided. They accuse Republicans of playing abortion politics during a public health emergency, and Republicans are accusing Democrats of doing the exact same thing.

CORNISH: And as we talk about this, of course Florida is a state that has concerns about Zika with cases appearing there - Florida, a battleground state. Has it become a campaign issue?

CHANG: It sure has I mean certainly for Republican Senator Marco Rubio who's defending his seat down there. The thing is, Rubio has actually voted for every Zika emergency aid package that the Senate has considered, including one that would have provided the full $1.9 billion the president originally asked for.

But now pro-choice groups are dumping a ton of money into the race to run ads against him, and they're making issue of an answer Rubio gave last month when he was asked whether women with the Zika virus should be allowed to get abortions. He basically said no, that he would err on the side of life. And now opponents are using that against him in relation to Zika.

CORNISH: That's NPR's congressional correspondent Ailsa Chang. Ailsa, thank you.

CHANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.