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When Democrats Sat In, Republicans Took Them Hostage

In Thursday's wee hours, the House slashed public-health programs, lined fat cats' wallets, and even greenlit the Confederate flag.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

By now you’ve no doubt watched some footage of Representative John Lewis, the civil-rights legend, causing trouble once again on Wednesday by sitting down on the floor of the House and refusing to move without action on gun safety legislation. You’ve probably seen the chaotic images of House Republicans taking the floor in the wee hours of the morning, amid chants and shouting matches, eventually voting to adjourn the chamber for 12 days.

But you might not have noticed that, while Lewis was leading a civil rights-style protest in this unlikeliest of venues, Republicans passed a bill—one that Lewis has also fought against—to keep the Confederate flag flying on federal property.

That incredibly inappropriate measure was just one small piece of a big appropriations package passed amid the clamor at 3:10 a.m. on Thursday, with no debate, that features long-awaited funding to combat the Zika virus. Republicans are trying to take advantage of Democratic desperation to secure emergency funding for Zika by pairing it with distasteful policies like the Confederate flag provision. Other pieces punish Planned Parenthood and reward pesticide polluters. Republicans pay for the Zika funding itself by robbing from other public health needs. And they’ve stuffed it all into an appropriations bill for military construction and the Veterans Administration, making it politically difficult to oppose.

You can view the sit-in as a powerful manifestation of the differing priorities between the two parties—one fighting an epidemic, the other beholden to a special interest. But the partisan mish-mash Republicans advanced during the sit-in makes this point even more sharply.

In the four months-plus since President Obama requested $1.9 billion in funding for mosquito control, research into vaccines, and public-education programs about Zika, more than 2,200 Americans have been stricken with the virus, which causes multiple birth defects, including babies being born with abnormally small heads. Yet Republicans have consistently resisted approving an emergency Zika response.

The story of what they finally did pass is telling: In this supposedly “do-nothing” Republican Congress, this is how things get done. The House and Senate attached competing versions of Zika funding, both inadequate to what federal health agencies believe necessary, to a Military Construction and Veterans Administration appropriations bill. The Senate offered $1.1 billion and the House just $622 million. The House and Senate reconciled the differences in a conference report, negotiated entirely by Republicans without Democratic input, which was seemingly constructed to include the worst elements of each version.

The good news is that the higher level of Zika funding, $1.1 billion, was put into the final bill. That’s still $800 million less than the president’s request, but it could have been lower. The rest of the news is bad: Almost all the Zika funding, $750 million, will be offset with spending cuts. Despite Zika clearly being a public health emergency, Congress did not provide emergency funding, but instead raided other parts of the budget—namely, other programs for public health.

The offsets include $107 million from emergency funding to prevent Ebola—stealing from one public health crisis to pay for another. Ebola has not been fully contained, and now the United States will have less money to assist that effort. Another $100 million comes from the Department of Health and Human Services, and the largest money source, $543 million, cuts the Affordable Care Act’s transition fund for U.S. territories to stand up health insurance exchanges. Democrats add that the precedent being set here—of paying for emergencies like Zika with offsets, which is not normally done—will make it harder to quickly deliver money after a flood or an earthquake.

But that’s not all. Republicans took advantage of a bill with Zika funding, something Democrats desperately want (as should all Americans), to lard up the legislation with nakedly partisan riders. The appropriations bill restricts Zika funding from going to Planned Parenthood birth-control services. Zika can be sexually transmitted, and Planned Parenthood is often the only facility offering birth control in Zika-affected communities. So this puts women at risk of infection and their babies at deeper risk.

Another rider in the bill would roll back the permitting process for spraying pesticides that could end up in bodies of water used for fishing and recreation. Republicans say this is needed to eradicate the mosquitoes that carry Zika, but its real purpose is clear: They’ve put the same measure in nearly half a dozen other bills over the years, clearly at the behest of polluters.

And then there’s the most darkly ironic rider of all: the one that blocks an already-approved deal that would prohibit Confederate flags in federal facilities, like parks and cemeteries. John Lewis himself delivered an emotional address last year calling for finally banning the flag. Congress agreed, but House Republicans reversed themselves in the bill they rammed through at 3:10 a.m.

On Thursday morning, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid savaged the Zika bill as “a mockery of how Congress should treat an emergency.” He called it a “wish-list for anti-women, anti-minorities, anti-environments, and radicals in Congress.”

True enough. But there’s no other vehicle to get even inadequate Zika funding out of Congress. And with the House adjourning, there’s no opportunity to change this bill in the short term. Another recess comes up quickly after the House returns on July 5, because of the national political conventions. In fact, there aren’t many legislative days left in the year. And the House has now jammed the Senate by putting this bill in its lap. Reid certainly sounds like he wants to filibuster, but only a handful of Democratic crossover votes would be needed to get it to the president’s desk.

A veto is possible, but House Republicans have made that politically difficult. Last month the Obama administration threatened to veto a stand-alone version of the pesticide-permitting bill. But would the president actually veto a bill that not only includes some of the Zika funding they sought, but that funds the military and veterans? A veto would seem tailor-made for demagoguery by Republicans about failing to “support the troops.”

If Senate Democrats hold firm, they can delay the bill indefinitely. But holding firm would prove tricky if more headlines about Zika infections build up through the summer; Republicans can shout about Democrats holding up $1.1 billion to fight Zika, while simultaneously blocking funding for our veterans.

Republicans have endlessly re-run this game of attaching ideological priorities to legislation that has to pass, forcing Democrats and the White House into uncomfortable positions. Democrats can sing “We Shall Not Be Moved” on the House floor for the next decade, but as long as they’re in the minority, this legislative hostage-taking can still work.

Inaction on guns is one reason liberals want to remove Republicans from power. If you want another, look at the spectacle we’ve just seen: the House GOP exploiting a public health crisis for ideological advantage in the middle of the night.