GOP leader sees House vote on new disaster bill

By Andrew Taylor

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Sept. 22 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — House Republicans grappled Thursday with ways to revive a must-pass measure to provide billions of dollars in disaster relief and prevent a government shutdown at the end of next week.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the House would vote anew on the legislation Thursday evening.

But it was unclear whether GOP leaders had decided on exactly what the new legislation would look like or whether they had enough votes to reverse Wednesday's embarrassing House rejection of the bill.

Cantor would provide no details after emerging from a closed-door meeting among Republicans. House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., said the legislation would be similar to the earlier version and perhaps contain additional savings to help pay for the disaster aid.

On Wednesday, the House voted 230-195 to reject the legislation, which contained $3.7 billion in disaster aid and enough money to keep the government running into mid-November. The loss came at the hands of Democrats and tea party Republicans.

But time is short. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Thursday that the government's main disaster aid account is "running on fumes" and could be tapped out as early as early next week. She called on Congress to quickly resolve the problem or risk delays in getting disaster projects approved.

"''I'm hopeful that Congress will work this out in the next couple of days," Napolitano told The Associated Press as she flew to Joplin, Mo., to view tornado damage. "We have stretched this as far as it can go. We are scraping the bottom of the barrel."

Now the question confronting GOP leaders including Speaker John Boehner of Ohio is whether to push the legislation to the left or the right in hopes of passing it through the House and reaching agreement with the Democratic Senate before disaster aid runs out for victims of Hurricane Irene and other disasters early next week.

Boehner said that rejection of the measure could backfire on tough-on-spending conservatives.

"They could vote 'no' but what they're in essence doing is they're voting to spend more money," Boehner said Thursday. "Because that's exactly what will happen."

Before Wednesday's loss, the House GOP seemed likely to score a win over Senate Democrats pressing a larger aid package.

The House demise of the measure was caused partly by Democrats opposed to $1.5 billion in cuts to a government loan program to help car companies build fuel-efficient vehicles. On the other side, almost 50 GOP conservatives felt the underlying bill permits spending at too high a rate.

The defeat appears to give Democrats greater leverage in stripping the cut to the carmaker subsidy and could lead to a deal with Senate Democrats on a larger disaster aid package.

Boehner and his leadership team are back at the drawing board as they seek to make sure the government doesn't shut down on Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year. More immediate is the risk that the government's main disaster relief program could run out of money by Tuesday or so.

One option is to find a different spending cut to offset $1 billion worth of immediate disaster aid needed to make sure victims aren't cut off next week. Another might be to drop the idea of an offset altogether.

Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said Thursday that the speaker has yet to decide on a course of action.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has only a few days' worth of aid remaining in its disaster relief fund, lawmakers said. The agency already has held up thousands of longer-term rebuilding projects — repairs to sewer systems, parks, roads and bridges, for example — to conserve money to provide emergency relief to victims of recent disasters.

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