Senate blocks House disaster aid bill

Relief legislation voted down after House Republicans passed offset-heavy version yesterday

Published September 23, 2011 7:21PM (EDT)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011, to discuss FEMA funding and the Continuing Resolution to fund the government. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg) (AP/Harry Hamburg)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011, to discuss FEMA funding and the Continuing Resolution to fund the government. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg) (AP/Harry Hamburg)

The Democratic-led Senate blocked a House-passed bill on Friday that would provide disaster aid and keep government agencies open, escalating the parties' latest showdown over spending and highlighting the raw partisan rift that has festered all year.

In a tit-for-tat battle, the Senate first used a near party-line vote of 59-36 to derail the measure from the Republican-run House. The House bill would fund federal agencies and provide $3.7 billion in disaster assistance, partly paying for that aid with cuts in two loan programs that finance technological development.

Then, Senate Republicans refused to let the chamber vote on a compromise offered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that was similar to the House version but lacked the loan program cuts. A vote on Reid's measure was set for Monday afternoon, but Republicans seemed likely to prevail because Democrats would need 60 votes to win -- exceeding the 53 votes they have.

The basic dispute pitted GOP objections that the bill's emergency spending was too costly against Democratic complaints that cutting the energy loan programs would stifle the economy and cost jobs.

The fresh round of brinksmanship came with lawmakers facing two deadlines. Obama administration officials have warned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency's fund for disaster victims could run out of money early next week, even as claims from Hurricane Irene and other recent disasters continue to arrive at government offices. And Congress has completed none of the 12 annual spending bills for the federal fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, meaning agencies would have to close their doors without fresh funding.

"The government's not shutting down. I spoke to Mr. Fugate myself," Reid said, referring to FEMA director Craig Fugate. "FEMA is not running out of money. We'll come here Monday, reasonable heads will prevail."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Democrats were ignoring the government's budget problems.

"What's at stake is whether we're going to add to the debt or not," McConnell said.

The measure the House passed early Friday would temporarily prevent a federal shutdown by financing government agencies from the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year through Nov. 18. It was approved by a near party-line 219-203 vote.

The Senate version, approved last week with the support of 10 GOP senators, provided $6.9 billion in disaster aid and no cuts to help pay for it.

White House spokesman Jay Carney faulted House Republicans for the deadlock on Friday, saying they had passed legislation knowing it would die in the Senate, just as they had during last month's fight over extending the federal debt limit.

"The fever hasn't broken -- the behavior that we saw this summer that really repelled Americans continues," Carney said.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, blamed Democrats, saying the House-passed bill had enough money for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the short term and that Congress could provide more money later.

"The Senate Democratic leadership is essentially threatening to delay FEMA money that families need right now for a partisan gain," said the spokesman, Michael Steel.

It was unclear how the standoff would be resolved. The House and Senate had both planned to take next week off, but neither seemed likely to risk accusations of ignoring the thousands of Americans victimized by natural calamities or of allowing the government to shut its doors.

"We're establishing priorities," said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif. "We have a priority, that being dealing with our fellow Americans."

House passage represented a reversal from an embarrassing setback the chamber dealt its Republican leaders on Wednesday. On that day, the House rejected a nearly identical measure, shot down by Democrats complaining its disaster aid was too stingy and conservative Republicans upset that its overall spending was too extravagant.

The bill the House approved Friday morning contained just one change -- an additional $100 million in savings from cutting a second Energy Department loan program, this one aimed at sparking new energy technologies.

That is the same program that financed a $528 million federal loan to Solyndra Inc., the California solar panel maker that won praise from President Barack Obama but has since gone bankrupt and laid off its 1,100 workers. The Obama administration had praised Solyndra as a model for green energy companies, but now Congress is investigating the circumstances under which the government approved the loan.

The gridlock over the spending bill was the third time this year the two parties have clashed over legislation whose passage both sides considered crucial.

In April with just hours to spare, the two sides reached agreement on a bill that averted a federal shutdown and provided money for government agencies through September. Then this summer, they battled for weeks before finally approving legislation extending the government's borrowing authority and narrowly preventing a historic federal default.

Against a backdrop of the 2012 presidential and congressional elections and angst over the country's dismal job market, this year's clashes have been intensified by the infusion of dozens of tea party Republicans who often show little inclination to compromise.

Wednesday's defeat of the spending bill was only the most recent time they have made life difficult for Boehner. And it underscored the challenges ahead this fall as Congress tackles efforts to fix the economy, create jobs and try to control the $14 trillion national debt.

By Alan Fram


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