Credit Al Drago/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — This was not supposed to be difficult. With the election just over a month away and few major issues on the table, the House and Senate were going to pass a straightforward stopgap bill to fund the government through early December and then skedaddle.
So much for that.
A combination of Senate Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday soundly rejected a first effort by Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader, to advance a temporary spending bill, leaving Congress again flirting with a government shutdown in the latest illustration of how nothing is ever simple on Capitol Hill these days.
“It’s just a 10-week funding bill,” Mr. McConnell said in exasperation on Tuesday as his proposal to head off a government shutdown after midnight Friday headed for defeat. The vote fell 15 votes short of the 60 needed for passage.
Unlike past showdowns over national issues like the new health care law or immigration policy, this shutdown conflict is more parochial, centered on Democratic demands for help for Flint, Mich., with its lead-contaminated water, and flood relief for Louisiana.
Democrats say they won’t support a bill that includes the latter without the former, as Mr. McConnell’s proposal did. And they note that Louisiana is represented by two Republican senators while Michigan has two Democrats.
”Republicans are essentially saying the disasters in our states are more important than the disasters in your state,” said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader. “It is unfair, and it is wrong.”
Democrats probably also wouldn’t mind if Republicans found themselves on the precipice of a federal shutdown because of the impasse, allowing Democrats a ripe campaign-season opportunity to lampoon congressional Republicans, who control both chambers, for being unable to do the most basic work of government.
Republicans know they have to be careful. Mr. McConnell has acknowledged before that his party owns the shutdown brand because of its track record, providing Democrats a lot of latitude to press their case on Flint. Republicans would be likely to absorb most of the public blame if federal agencies ran out of money as of Saturday.
The thought that Democrats might be playing hard to get for political purposes has occurred to Mr. McConnell and his fellow Republicans.
“It’s almost as if a few Democratic leaders decided long ago that bringing our country to the brink would make for good election-year politics,” he said.
“Democrats are marching us down a path that leads to a shutdown in order to gain some sort of political advantage,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican.
The problem for them and the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, is a familiar one. Republicans probably lack the votes to pass a stopgap funding bill without Democratic help since a significant number of Republicans in the Senate, and particularly in the House, refuse to vote for any spending bill whatsoever to avoid conservative backlash or provide fodder for a future primary challenge.
It is a reprise of the vote-no, hope-yes conundrum.
Republicans have sought to mollify Democrats by emphasizing that a $200 million aid program for Flint is also included in a separate water projects measure that has already cleared the Senate and will be negotiated with the House, where a measure without the Flint money is advancing. Mr. Ryan reiterated Tuesday that he believed that the public works bill was the proper way to send relief to Flint.
Democrats are having none of it, arguing that there is no guarantee that the water projects measure will pass this year. They say that if Republicans really want to address the health and contamination issues in Flint, they should agree to include the money in the must-pass spending bill. And they point out that the spending is entirely paid for and that it would add nothing to the deficit, eliminating that excuse for Republicans.
“There is no legitimate argument to keep the provision out of the continuing resolution other than they just don’t want to help Flint,” said Representative Dan Kildee, the Michigan Democrat who represents Flint. “It would be consistent for a poor community, a minority community, to be left behind for no good reason.”
Mr. Kildee said Mr. Ryan and Mr. McConnell must accept the fact that they are in trouble without Democratic votes to pass the spending bill.
“The position that I am taking is even if I can’t appeal to their sense of morality or their sense of justice, I will appeal to their sense of mathematics,” he said.
After Tuesday’s setback, congressional leaders will have to move quickly if they want to find an alternative approach given the time-consuming procedural hurdles that can be raised in the Senate.
One option is to add the funds for Flint, which would probably drive away Republican votes. Another is to eliminate the $500 million for flood relief in Louisiana and other states and deprive Democrats of their double-standard argument.
If presented with that choice, Democrats say, they might have to go along. But the unwelcome result would be that neither the needs of Flint nor flood-stricken Louisiana would be addressed.
Given the inability of Congress to perform even the most routine tasks, that would not be a surprising outcome.