Senate blocks House disaster aid bill

By Alan Fram

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Sept. 23 2011 2:12 p.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — The Democratic-led Senate blocked a House bill 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 used a near party-line vote of 59-36 to derail the measure passed earlier by the Republican-run House. That bill would fund federal agencies and provide $3.7 billion in disaster assistance, partly paying for that aid with cuts in two Energy Department loan programs that finance technological development.

With the support of 10 GOP senators, the Senate had voted last week to provide $6.9 billion in disaster aid and no cuts to help pay for it.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., offered a compromise Friday that would accept the House's lower level of disaster spending but lacked the loan program cuts. Republicans refused to let the chamber approve it, but the Senate will consider it Monday, when Republicans seem likely to prevent Democrats from getting the 60 votes they would need to prevail.

The dispute pitted GOP objections that the disaster spending would worsen the government's budget problems unless savings were included 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. 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 accumulate. 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 that day without fresh funding.

"We've agreed to their number on FEMA," Reid said. "I mean, do they want the government to shut down? Do they want FEMA to close?"

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Democrats want to continue the Washington custom of financing emergency spending by adding to colossal federal deficits.

"If there's any lesson we can draw from the debates we've been having here over the last six months, it's that the American people won't accept that excuse anymore," McConnell said. "The whole, 'that's the way we've always done it' argument is the reason we've got a $14 trillion dollar debt right now."

Besides its emergency aid, 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.

White House spokesman Jay Carney faulted House Republicans for the deadlock, 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.

Republicans blamed Democrats, saying the House-passed bill had enough money for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and that Democratic opposition to it was all about politics.

"The American people are sick and tired of political games," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky. "Shutting down the government and cutting off essential programs that our people rely on is bad enough, but leaving disaster-stricken families and communities in the lurch in their hour of greatest need is simply reprehensible."

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