Wed, Sep 21, 2016 - Page 7 News List

US Congress strives to finalize Zika aid, Internet fight waged


US Congressional negotiators on Monday pressed to wrap up a must-do spending bill to prevent an election-season government shutdown and provide money to battle the Zika virus, but numerous sticking points remain and top senate leaders again postponed a planned procedural vote.

The stopgap measure would keep the US government running past the end of the budget year this month. It is the only measure that has to pass before congress adjourns for election day. As such, the talks have been tricky, with Republicans battling Democrats and the administration of US President Barack Obama.

A controversy involving whether Planned Parenthood should be eligible for anti-Zika funding in Puerto Rico, which sparked a Democratic blockade of an earlier measure, was defused with little fanfare last week.

Senate Republicans, who have taken the lead in the talks, have relented and would make affiliates of Planned Parenthood eligible for funds to fight the virus in Puerto Rico.

The US$1 billion-plus to fight the mosquito-borne Zika virus is months overdue. Republicans were slow to act on Obama’s request in February and then sparked an imbroglio with Democrats by restricting new health grants for Puerto Rico to entities like public health providers and hospitals, a step that Republicans said was aimed at ensuring Planned Parenthood was ineligible to receive any funds. A proposed solution would move the money to different accounts and make sure Planned Parenthood remains eligible to receive it.

Another proposal would temporarily ease pesticide spraying rules from US Clean Water Act requirements for permits.

Supporters say the permits are duplicative, as pesticides are generally regulated by a different environmental law, but the idea is opposed by the administration, which says it’s an assault on environmental laws.

Democrats also are opposed to pairing the Zika money with spending cuts intended to try to pay for it. Other disasters, like floods and emergency wildfire funds, have not required such offsetting cuts, and Democrats do not want to set the precedent.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz is pushing for a provision in the bill to ensure that the government does not relinquish control of the Internet’s addressing system. The government is expected to take that step, and Cruz has been fighting it.

“It is my hope that congress is going to act to maintain current law and to protect the Internet, keep the Internet free,” Cruz told reporters. “It would be profoundly harmful to American interests and to the free-speech rights of Americans to give Russia and China and Iran greater control over the Internet, and I hope we see a bipartisan consensus to protect free speech online.”

After talks over the weekend failed to produce much progress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell postponed a procedural vote that had been slated for Monday evening. The delay probably means congress will not wrap up its pre-election session this week.

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