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September 20, 2014

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Congress OKs highway, VA bills, not border measure

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AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio walks to the House chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 31, 2014, for final votes as Congress rushes for the doors and a five-week summer recess.

Updated Thursday, July 31, 2014 | 6:36 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Congress ran full-tilt into election-year gridlock over immigration Thursday and staggered toward a five-week summer break after failing to agree on legislation to cope with the influx of young immigrants flocking illegally to the United States.

Faring far better, a bipartisan, $16 billion measure to clean up after a scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs and a second bill to prevent a cutoff in highway funding gained final passage in the Senate and were sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.

With lawmakers eager to adjourn, legislation to send Israel $225 million for its Iron Dome missile defense system was blocked, at least initially, by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Three months before midterm elections, the unbreakable dispute over immigration exposed not only enduring disputes between the parties, but also differences inside the ranks of House Republicans and among Senate Democrats.

And a new outburst of harsh partisan rhetoric between leading officials in both parties served as yet another reminder that after 18 months in office, the current Congress has little to show for its efforts apart from abysmally low public approval ratings.

House Speaker John Boehner accused Democrats of pursuing a "nutso scheme" of trying to seize on the border crisis to try and grant a path to citizenship to millions of immigrants living in the country illegally.

Countering, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said blame for failing to fix problems at the border rested with Republicans. He charged they have refused to provide "the necessary resources to deal with what they themselves describe as a serious problem."

Despite Boehner's accusation, it was Republican unity that cracked first during the day.

A few hours after Boehner spoke, Republicans abruptly canceled a vote on their own border security legislation, a $659 million measure that also would make it easier to deport the children from Central America now flooding into the United States. They did so after a revolt by tea party-aligned GOP lawmakers, some of whom had conferred with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz the night before.

They argued that the leadership's offer of a vote on a companion bill, even if it were approved, would fall short of reversing a 2012 administration policy under which 500,000 immigrants living in the country illegally have obtained work permits.

A short while later, a $2.7 billion Democratic alternative to ease the crisis at the border perished in the Senate, blocked by Republicans and two Democrats seeking the right to seek changes.

So chaotic was the day that after initially announcing the House had taken its last vote, Republicans abruptly reversed course and announced plans to reconvene on Friday for a possible vote on legislation related to border security and immigration — details yet to be determined.

Asked what would change overnight, Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama said of fellow Republicans: "I'm hoping some people will grow up."

Whatever the eventual outcome in the House, there was no talk of any compromise with the Senate before lawmakers left town, Thursday night for the Senate and Friday for the House.

The prospect of a deadlock produced a blast from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate who last week announced he was dispatching National Guard troops to the border.

"Congress should not go into recess until the job is completed," he said.

The veterans bill cleared the Senate on a vote of 91-3, one day after the House passed it by 420-5. It was a response to the extremely long delays that some veterans experienced while waiting for care, as well as a cover-up by some agency officials.

Most of the money will be used to let veterans seek care from outside physicians if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or face a long wait to see a doctor at one. The legislation also would allow the hiring of additional physicians for the VA and permit the firing of senior executives guilty of poor performance.

The bill marked a traditional compromise between the parties and the houses of the sort that lawmakers have struck for generations. Democrats gave up their insistence on more funding, and Republicans agreed to let deficits rise by $10 billion as part of the agreement rather than seek offsetting cuts elsewhere.

More urgent was the bill to prevent a reduction in federal highway construction funding at the height of the summer construction season.

The Transportation Department set Friday as the date the Highway Trust Fund will no longer be able to provide all the aid promised, and estimated that states could expect an average reduction of 28 percent unless Congress acted by then.

The two houses have played legislative ping pong with the issue in recent days. But with time running out, the Senate voted 81-13 to pass a House-approved measure making $10.8 billion available, enough to last until next May.

Legislation providing money for Iron Dome, the Israeli missile defense system, had yet to be made public late in the day. Instead, the funding was tucked inside a border security bill that was drafted by Senate Democrats and opposed by Republicans.

Officials said they expected that the Israeli money eventually would be broken out, and that if the Senate approved it, the House would agree.

But first, there was bickering aplenty over immigration, an issue that has divided Congress for years.

Said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky: "It boggles the mind that the president of the United States would rather fundraise in Hollywood than ... to do something to prevent more young people from making the perilous and potentially life-threatening journey across the desert."

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, was no more charitable about House Republicans. She said their approach would "intensify the harm for children."

Administration officials have signaled that Obama intends to use an executive order to expand the program, which the president unveiled in the heat of his presidential re-election campaign in 2012.

If he does, Boehner said, "he'll be sealing the deal on his legacy of lawlessness."

Associated Press writers Erica Werner, Joan Lowy, Donna Cassata, Andrew Taylor and Alan Fram contributed to this report.

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