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Obama, McConnell strike hopeful tone on budget, Zika

WASHINGTON (AP) - Striking a conciliatory tone after an Oval Office sitdown, President Barack Obama and the top Senate Republican declared themselves hopeful Monday that an agreement can be reached to keep the government running and to provide money to take care of the worsening Zika crisis.
    
"I was encouraged by some of the constructive work that's being done right now," Obama said after his meeting with the top four congressional leaders, two from each party.
    
Long-sought provisions to provide money to deal with Zika look likely to be added to a must-pass spending bill to fund the government through Dec. 9.
    
Entering the Capitol after the meeting, Senate Majority Leader McConnell told reporters that the group "talked about wrapping up the funding issue and I think we're all in a very good place to do that on a bipartisan basis pretty quickly."
    
Obama, for his part, said his "hope is that by the time Congress adjourns, before the election, that we will have an agreement in place to fund the government and that Zika funding will be taken care of."
    
His remarks in the Oval Office, with congressional leaders looking on, represented a marked shift in tone from a preview of the meeting provided by his spokesman just hours earlier.
    
White House spokesman Josh Earnest had said reasonable people could probably figure out a solution to the issues "in a couple of hours," but added that "unfortunately, they're stuck with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan being responsible for this," referring to the Republican leaders in the Senate and House.
    
Conservative opposition to the emerging deal remains, but negotiators worked through the weekend on the details. The Zika money has stalled since Obama first requested $1.9 billion in February, but congressional Republican leaders seem likely to jettison provisions opposed by Democrats restricting any of the money from going to affiliates of Planned Parenthood in Puerto Rico.
    
Speaking on the Senate floor in advance of the White House meeting, McConnell confirmed that he expected action by week's end on a funding bill including Zika money.
    
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said his staff was working "diligently" toward a solution, and he called on Republicans to "get away from their vendetta against Planned Parenthood ... Planned Parenthood should not be part of Zika funding."
    
It comes as government scientists step up their warnings about the spread of the virus, which can cause devastating birth defects. More than 670 pregnant women in the states and Washington, D.C., have the virus, leading to the birth of at least 17 babies with microcephaly so far.
    
On Friday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Thomas Frieden said that "we are now essentially out of money" and warned that the country is "about to see a bunch of kids born with microcephaly" in the coming months.
    
Obama, just back from a trip to Asia, invited the GOP leaders, Ryan and McConnell, and their counterparts, Reid and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
    
The lawmakers have been back from a seven-week summer recess for only a week but already are eager to depart again so that vulnerable lawmakers of both parties can campaign for re-election. The government funding bill is the only must-pass piece of legislation ahead of the election and thus has become the vehicle for the Zika provisions.
    
Also on the agenda for the president and legislators: a request from Louisiana's governor for $2.8 billion in federal assistance to help the state recover from devastating flooding.  Gov. John Bel Edwards last week had requested $2 billion, but upped the amount on Monday. Louisiana's GOP-dominated congressional delegation sent Obama a letter Monday urging him to submit a disaster aid request so that Congress can act on it this year, though it fell short of indicating that the funding should be added to the stopgap spending bill.
    
Obama said they discussed the need for disaster relief in Louisiana and elsewhere, but gave no specifics on the conversation.
    
Obama's priorities for a lame-duck postelection session of Congress also were on the table, including Obama's one major remaining foreign policy priority, the 12-nation Asia free-trade Trans-Pacific Partnership. During his recent trip to Asia, Obama repeatedly called on Congress to pass what the White House considers a legacy-burnishing deal.
    
The president said he was hopeful about being able to "get things done" with Congress on issues including criminal justice reform when legislators meet again after the elections.


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