Congress cooperates _ and fights _ as recess nears

July 30, 2014 - 10:35 PM
House Obama Lawsuit

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Md., joined by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., left, and Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, R-Mich., criticizes the efforts of Republicans to muscle legislation through the House authorizing an election-year lawsuit against President Barack Obama that accuses him of exceeding his powers in enforcing his health care law, Wednesday, July 30, 2014, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Democrats have branded the effort a political charade aimed at stirring up Republican voters for the fall congressional elections. They say it's also an effort by top Republicans to mollify conservatives who want Obama to be impeached — something House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, said Tuesday he has no plans to do. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Eager to begin a monthlong break, Congress leavened its customary heavy partisanship on Wednesday with a pinch of compromise, advancing legislation to repair the deeply troubled Department of Veterans Affairs and working to clear funds for highway construction at home and missile defense in Israel.

Yet old habits proved unbreakable less than 100 days before elections with control of Congress at stake. On a party-line vote of 225-201 Republicans pushed legislation through the House authorizing an official lawsuit accusing President Barack Obama of failing to enforce the health care law, denying they had impeachment in mind.

And gridlock loomed on the administration's call for billions to cope with a surge in young immigrants pouring into the U.S. illegally from Central America.

"Stop being mad all the time. Stop just hating all the time," Obama lectured lawmakers from afar in Kansas City, Missouri, in a speech that was particularly harsh on Republicans. "Come on. Let's get some work done together."

There was a modest amount of progress on compromise legislation during the day, and hopes in both parties for considerably more before a scheduled adjournment on Thursday.

On a vote of 420-5, the House overwhelmingly approved a compromise bill to clean up the scandal-soiled VA, where some officials are accused of covering up long delays in patient care. The $16.3 billion measure would allow veterans to get outside care if they live too far from a VA health facility or face a delay of longer than 30 days in getting an appointment.

It also includes money to hire new doctors and allows the fast-track firing of senior officials found to be complicit in hiding agency shortcomings.

The legislation was a compromise between the House and Senate — one of few in the Congress that convened 18 months ago — with less money than Democrats wanted and a significant concession from conservative Republicans as well. It would raise federal deficits by $10 billion, one of very few times since tea party-aligned lawmakers came to power that the House has agreed to new spending without also insisting on offsetting cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Concerns about future costs prompted the conservative Club for Growth to oppose the bill. "It creates an unproven new entitlement that sets taxpayers on a course to spend half a trillion dollars over the next decade," the organization said.

Even so, a final vote was expected on Thursday in the Senate.

The vote on the veterans bill was sandwiched between chapters of a highly partisan debate on the legislation to authorize a lawsuit against the president financed from public funds. Democrats argued it was prelude to impeachment, a charge Republicans denied despite calls for Obama's removal from some lawmakers aligned with the tea party.

"Our freedom is in peril, my friends. We cannot stand by and watch the president shred our constitution," said Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C..

Hardly, argued Democrats. "It is in fact a veiled attempt at impeachment," countered Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.

The path was bumpy even for one of the items on the bipartisan must-do list.

Legislation to assure uninterrupted funds for highway and bridge construction was stalled at least temporarily in a last-minute dispute between the House and Senate. Aides in both houses expressed confidence it would be resolved in time for final approval on Thursday.

The prospects were far worse for Obama's call for legislation to address what many lawmakers have called a humanitarian crisis at the border with Mexico.

In the House, Republicans worked to secure the votes for $659 million to cope with the growing influx of young immigrants arriving without parents. Most Democrats are opposed because of a provision allowing rapid deportation of unaccompanied children reaching the United States illegally from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The White House, which initially agreed to the change, threatened a veto in the unlikely event the legislation reaches Obama's desk.

A companion bill was being offered to satisfy conservatives eager to see Obama blocked on immigration. It would prevent the president from expanding an existing program that's granted work permits to more than 500,000 immigrants brought to this country illegally as kids and allowed them to stay here without threat of deportation.

The situation was reversed in the Senate, where Democrat-drafted legislation would provide $2.7 billion to deal with the young immigrants but would omit provisions to ease deportation rules. The measure also includes funds for firefighting efforts at home and for Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system.

It cleared a Senate procedural hurdle on a vote of 63-33, three more than the 60 required, a roll call that temporarily masked the deeper disagreements over deportation rules. Officials in both parties predicted the measure would soon collapse.

That would clear the way for the Senate to approve $225 million for Israel's missile defense system, which is credited with intercepting rockets launched from the Gaza Strip during the current three-week war.

The bill is then expected to clear the House easily as lawmakers head out for a round of summer campaigning.

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Associated Press writers Joan Lowy, Bradley Klapper, Matthew Daly and Erica Werner contributed to this story.