WASHINGTON — It was Obamacare in 2013 and Planned Parenthood last year. Call it déjà vu all over again – Congress is risking a government shutdown that could freeze troop pay and squeeze civilian defense workers, this time over the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Senate Democrats and Republicans, who were unable to craft an annual budget on time, were still fighting Tuesday over aid for Flint and a stop-gap measure to temporarily keep money flowing after Friday to the Defense Department and the rest of the federal government. A year ago, troops were also facing a pay freeze and civilians were warned of furloughs as Congress tangled over a Republican effort to defund Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit reproductive health care provider that backs abortions. A funding emergency was averted at the last moment, but a 2013 shutdown over attempts to defund Obamacare resulted in 350,000 Defense Department workers being furloughed without pay for about a week.
The Pentagon said Tuesday it had not yet warned employees of a possible shutdown, which could indeed cause a hold on pay checks and furloughs, because its congressional liaisons believed Congress could still solve the funding dispute. Active-duty troops would likely be entitled to back pay if the government shuts down. With just four days left, Democrats in the Senate dug in Tuesday afternoon and scuttled two attempts to hold a vote on a temporary spending bill crafted by Republicans because it lacked money for Flint.
"We are willing to compromise but we cannot capitulate on certain items," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the vice chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, which has a lead role in crafting the federal budget. A stop-gap bill to fund the government through Dec. 9 must also include $220 million to improve the public water systems in Flint, where contaminated drinking water exposed thousands of children to high levels of lead, she said. Mikulski and top Democrats in the chamber said Flint has waited for emergency funding for a year and needs help – the state is also represented by two Democratic senators. They urged Republican leaders in the House and Senate to re-open negotiations on the spending bill so the money could be added.
In addition to keeping the government running, the bill that Democrats shot down on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon also included money for veteran and military construction projects, emergency funding to fight the Zika virus, aid for flood damaged areas in Louisiana and funding to combat the nationwide opioid epidemic. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had made some concessions to Democrats, saying the bill contained "zero controversial riders," and then blocked any possibility of amendments to the legislation. The Flint funding is already being dealt with in other legislation being hashed out by Congress and should not be used as an excuse by Democrats for opposition, McConnell said. "It's hard to believe Democrats would really be willing to hold up this commonsense package and its critical resources to address Zika, the heroin and prescription opioid epidemic and floods," he said. --Reporter Corey Dickstein contributed to this story.