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Posted: Thursday, July 31st 2014 at 11:15am

Congress races to finish veterans, highway bills

By The Associated Press
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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Rushing toward the exits, Congress on Thursday scrambled to wrap up legislation addressing the problem-plagued Veterans Affairs Department and a looming shortfall in highway money. House Republicans sought to win over reluctant, tea party conservatives on a border security bill.

On the final day before a five-week summer break, Congress was leaving a long list of unfinished business after 18 months of bitter partisanship. Democrats cast Republicans as the obstacle; Republicans said President Barack Obama has been missing in action.

"We've not had a productive Congress," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Obama has chosen to raise money in Hollywood rather than work with Congress.

"Press pause on the nonstop photo ops and start demonstrating some leadership instead," McConnell said.

The institutional split of a Republican-led House and Democratic-controlled Senate has added up to inaction, especially in a midterm election year with control of the Senate at stake. Lawmakers have struggled to compromise on a handful of bills to deal with the nation's pressing problems, sometimes negotiating within their own ranks.

In a last-minute scramble for votes for a $659 million border bill, House Republican leaders sought to tamp down tea party unrest over immigration stirred by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. The leadership scheduled a companion vote on legislation that would block Obama from extending deportation relief to any more immigrants living here illegally.

White House officials have indicated plans to unilaterally expand that program, perhaps to millions more people, in the wake of the House's failure to act this year on a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate. Republicans warn that would provoke a constitutional crisis, and a few conservatives have said it would be grounds for impeachment.

The White House issued a statement assailing House Republicans for their inaction on comprehensive legislation and then willingness to target a program that "has benefited more than 500,000 young people who are Americans in every way except on paper."

The fast-moving developments would seem to ensure House passage of the border bill that would allow migrant youths to be sent home more quickly and would dispatch National Guard troops to the border, yet did nothing to change the overall stalemate in Congress over the border crisis in South Texas.

The White House issued a veto threat Wednesday against the House bill even as the Senate's much different measure cleared a procedural hurdle - likely just a temporary reprieve before its eventual defeat.

The Senate's version of the bill - a $3.5 billion package that also includes money for Western wildfires and Israel - faces opposition from Republicans and some Democrats, who argue the measure amounts to a blank check for Obama with no policy changes.

That left no apparent path for a compromise bill to reach Obama's desk before Congress' recess, even as lawmakers in both parties said they wanted to act.

Congress is poised to send Obama legislation revamping the VA, with a Senate vote expected Thursday. Lawmakers also are working on a path forward for highway and transit projects. The sweeping, $16.3 billion VA bill would overhaul the scandal-plagued department after reports of patients dying while awaiting treatment and long delays in scheduling appointments.

The legislative effort came against the backdrop of a partisan House vote to sue Obama for unilateral changes in his signature health care law. Republicans accused him of shredding the Constitution, while Democrats described the vote as a veiled attempt at impeachment.

The near party-line vote on Wednesday was 225-201.

Determined to help Israel amid weeks of deadly fighting in Gaza with Hamas, the House and Senate also were expected to approve $225 million for Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system that intercepts short-range rockets and mortars.

Support for Israel is strongly bipartisan in Congress. Immigration, on the other hand, causes sharp splits.

With a day left before the government plans to start reducing federal highway aid payments to states, the House and Senate were still wrangling over legislation to keep the money flowing. Timing and how to pay for the measure were the key issues.

The House bill allocates $10.8 bill to keep highway and transit programs going through the end of May 2015. The $8.1 billion Senate bill would pay for highway and transit aid through Dec. 19.

The Transportation Department has said that by Friday the federal Highway Trust Fund will no longer have enough money to cover promised aid and states should expect an average reduction of 28 percent in aid payments unless Congress acts first.

Senate Democrats have said they will not allow that happen, and they are expected to accede to the House demands.
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