The U.S. Congress has fewer than two weeks to extend federal spending authority or face a partial government shutdown when the fiscal year ends September 30.
While many Americans are focused on the presidential contest, Washington is careening towards a funding deadline that could become a major distraction for both political parties if non-essential government services grind to a halt weeks before the November elections.
“It is something we must deal with. And we will,” predicted Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas.
Washington usually is spared protracted fiscal fights during election years, but 2016 is proving to be different as even unanimously-backed goals, like fighting the Zika virus, are mired in partisan bickering.
“It is not the time for political games,” said Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, where Zika is believed to be spreading.
Not only has Congress failed to pass yearlong spending bills, Republicans and Democrats have yet to agree on the specifics of a temporary extension of current funding levels to avoid a shutdown. Both sides point fingers.
Cornyn placed the blame on “Democratic obstruction."
“This year our Democratic colleagues stopped the regular orderly process of passing appropriations bills, and you might ask for what purpose,” the senator said. “It’s pretty obvious that their purpose was to make sure that they had maximum leverage in order to force the federal government to spend more money.”
Democrats beg to differ.
“The process fell apart across the [Capitol] Rotunda, with the House Republicans,” said Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois.
The two parties differ on fiscal priorities.
“Six times, six times this body has been blocked by Senate Democrats from considering legislation to fund the Department of Defense, funding necessary for our troops to accomplish their missions,” said Republican Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota.
“If you want to increase defense spending, I will vote for that, you also have to increase non-defense spending in a similar fashion,” Durbin said. “Why would we want to increase non-defense spending? Education ... making sure that hungry families across America have enough to eat, making certain that the FBI is adequately funded.”
Bipartisan negotiations continue behind closed doors with no indication a breakthrough is near. Anti-Zika efforts are among urgent priorities hanging in the balance.
"We are in the midst of a public health crisis, and it should be treated like the emergency that it is," Nelson said.
There is one powerful force working in favor of a spending deal: the desire of lawmakers to adjourn and focus on their states and districts in the final weeks before the election.
“We are working fewer days in Washington than we have in 60 years,” said Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri. “I showed this calendar to people at home. They thought I was kidding.”
For now, no one can make any firm predictions.
“When we reach an agreement, we will let you know,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.