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Slow progress on bill to battle Zika and prevent shutdown

Posted September 20

— Top congressional leaders said Tuesday that negotiators are making slow but steady progress on a must-do spending bill to prevent a government shutdown next week and fund the battle against the Zika virus. Some tricky issues remain, but optimism was building that an agreement might be unveiled in the next day or two.

Congressional aides said that progress included an offer from Republicans to drop especially controversial provisions that would have eased pesticide regulations under the Clean Water Act and blocked tighter regulations on the length of workweeks for truckers.

But the Senate's top Democrat says a battle continues to rage over a demand by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to make sure corporations do not have to disclose their spending on political activities to investors. Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also said his party is fighting a move by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to block the government from ceding control over some of the internet's key systems — namely, the directories that help web browsers and apps locate information on the web.

Negotiators are also continuing to grapple over which spending cuts would accompany the $1 billion-plus in Zika funding — and how big they should be.

Reid complained that GOP negotiators were blocking a Democratic request for money to help Flint, Michigan, repair its lead-tainted water system. The fate of flood aid for Louisiana appeared iffy as well, aides said.

The roster of often arcane issues are coming into play because the stopgap spending measure — it would keep the government running into December — is the last piece of must-do business facing Congress before it recesses for the fall campaign. It's unclear how productive a post-election lame duck session would be.

Votes are also expected next week on overriding President Barack Obama's anticipated veto of legislation that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia. And on Wednesday, the Senate is expected to vote on a resolution to block the Obama administration from selling more than $1 billion worth of American-made weapons to Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. Lawmakers backing the measure are critical of the kingdom's role in Yemen's civil war.

On the stopgap spending bill, McConnell told reporters that negotiators are making progress on the measure but that the Senate won't pass the as-yet-unfinished bill until next week — just days before a midnight deadline Sept. 30 to avert a government shutdown. The White House and Capitol Hill Democrats hold a strong negotiating hand, which has slowed the talks.

While expressing optimism, McConnell acknowledged that the negotiations with his Democratic rivals have "taken a little longer than I anticipated." After several delays in a procedural step, McConnell won a vote on Tuesday that set in motion the cumbersome legislative steps required to guarantee a vote early next week.

Obama requested the anti-Zika money seven months ago but it has been repeatedly delayed, largely over a fight involving a move by Republicans to block affiliates of Planned Parenthood in Puerto Rico from getting taxpayer money to fight Zika, which can cause grave birth defects.

McConnell, however, signaled last week that he's willing to drop language that would have blocked Planned Parenthood from obtaining funding to battle Zika. Now, senior Senate aides say McConnell has more recently agreed to drop a provision, a priority of House Republicans, to exempt pesticide spraying from notification requirements under the Clean Water Act.

"The Clean Water Act already says if you have an emergency you can spray to your heart's content," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who fought the GOP move. "It just requires that you report what you spray so people know."

On the legislation that would permit lawsuits against Saudi Arabia by the families of 9/11 victims, supporters of the legislation are confident they can muster votes from two-thirds of the members of each chamber to countermand's Obama's rejection if a last-minute agreement to alleviate the president's concerns can't be reached.

"Our assumption is that the veto will be overridden," McConnell said.

Terry Strada, national head of 9/11 Families United For Justice Against Terrorism, dismissed concerns that if U.S. citizens are allowed to take the Saudis to court, then foreign countries could in turn sue the United States, its diplomats and its service members.

All the bill does, she said, "is simply ask that those accused of sponsoring terrorist attacks on U.S. soil to answer on the merits and to stand account for those accusations."

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Associated Press writer Richard Lardner contributed to this report.

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