House passes disaster aid, but Senate Dems object

By Andrew Taylor

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Sept. 23 2011 1:20 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — With the economy sputtering, the warring factions of Congress have lurched toward gridlock over the usually noncontroversial process of approving disaster aid and keeping the government from shutting down.

The GOP-dominated House early Friday muscled through a $3.7 billion disaster aid measure along with a stopgap spending bill to keep the government running past next Friday. The narrow 219-203 tally reversed an embarrassing loss for House GOP leaders that came Wednesday at the hands of rebellious tea party Republicans.

Even before the House vote, however, the leader of the Senate promised that majority Democrats will scuttle the measure as soon as it reaches the chamber on Friday. Democrats there want a much larger infusion of disaster aid and they're angry over cuts totaling $1.6 trillion from clean energy programs — and the strong-arm tactics being tried by the House.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the House plan "is not an honest effort at compromise. ... It will be rejected by the Senate."

The combination of events promises to push the partisan war into the weekend and could increase the chances that the government's main disaster aid account at the Federal Emergency Management Agency might run dry early next week.

More broadly, the renewed partisanship over what should be routine moves to help disaster victims and prevent a government shutdown sends a discouraging sign as a bitterly divided Washington looks ahead to more significant debates on President Barack Obama's jobs plan and efforts by a congressional supercommittee to slash deficits.

Thursday's maneuvering started as Republicans controlling the House moved to resurrect the disaster aid package after an embarrassing loss on Wednesday.

Instead of reaching out to Democrats, House GOP leaders looked to persuade wayward tea party Republicans to change their votes and help approve the assistance — and try to force Senate Democrats into a corner with little choice but to accept cuts to clean energy programs they favor. One sweetener for conservatives was to add $100 million in savings from a program that financed a federal loan to the now-bankrupt solar panel maker Solyndra Inc.

Republicans had hoped that once the House passed the measure, Senate Democrats would have had little choice but to accept it, especially with lawmakers eager to escape Washington for a weeklong recess. The move instead infuriated Democrats, who felt GOP leaders were trying to "jam" them into accepting the GOP bill.

"We're fed up with this," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic Whip. "They know what it takes for us to extend (stopgap funding) and keep the government in business. And this brinksmanship ... we're sick of it."

Unless Congress acts by midnight next Friday, much of the government will shut down. More immediate is the threat that the government's main disaster aid account will run out of money early next week.

"The Senate should pass this bill immediately, and the president should sign it, because any political games will delay FEMA money that suffering American families desperately need," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

The battling came as the stock market absorbed heavy losses and pessimism about the economy deepened. The arguing was reminiscent of the poisonous atmosphere of this summer rather than lawmakers' more recent promises to work together to find common ground where possible.

Wednesday's embarrassing 230-195 defeat of the disaster aid bill in the GOP-majority House exposed divisions within the Republican Party that demonstrated the tenuous grip that Boehner has on the chamber. Forty-eight Republicans opposed the measure then, chiefly because it would permit spending at the rate approved in last month's debt pact between Boehner and Obama, a level that is unpopular with tea party lawmakers.

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