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Congress dodges shutdown after disaster aid fight

By Andrew Taylor

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 27 2011 8:49 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — In agreeing to an emergency spending bill to avoid a government shutdown, Congress achieved a limited goal while postponing a fight over whether emergency disaster aid ought to be paid for with cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Democrats who spent weeks demanding additional disaster aid claimed victory even though the final deal — $2.7 billion in disaster relief assistance in a one-week bill — provided less than approved by tea party Republicans. The cost of the extra disaster assistance Democrats were pushing would have been offset by cuts in an energy-related program they also favor.

"We rejected the idea that we should be forced to choose between American jobs and disaster relief," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said late Monday after the Senate voted 79-12 to keep the government running until mid-November.

The brinkmanship had pushed a bitterly divided and poll-battered Congress into another fight that threatened to shut down the government, a step certain to draw the wrath of a frustrated public. At issue was how to replenish Federal Emergency Management Agency coffers and assist Americans battered by Hurricane Irene, tornadoes and other natural disasters.

Republicans wanted to offset the money with cuts in Energy Department loan programs for automobile manufacturers credited with creating jobs. Democrats balked at the notion. Armed with the administration's fresh assurance that the disaster aid program wouldn't run out of money, Senate leaders jettisoned the disputed money and passed bare-bones legislation to avert a shutdown.

The House, on recess this week, appears likely to endorse that measure next week when it returns.

The lowest-common-denominator solution came after Republicans stymied efforts by Senate Democrats for a $6.9 billion disaster aid package. House Republicans instead insisted on a $3.7 billion measure — with $1 billion of the most urgently needed money "paid for" with cuts to clean energy programs important to Democrats.

After pushing for weeks for a higher disaster aid figure, Senate Democrats instead fought their last battle to make sure the energy programs emerged uncut. But the casualty was $1 billion in disaster relief supported by Republicans and Democrats alike.

The breakthrough of sorts came after the Federal Emergency Management Agency indicated Monday it had enough money for disaster relief efforts through Friday. That disclosure allowed both sides to save face.

There was no immediate comment from House GOP leaders, although their approval for the measure seemed a mere formality after the party's Senate leader agreed to it.

The disaster aid debate will be revisited when Congress passes a massive spending bill later this year. Under the terms of last month's budget pact, up to $11.3 billion in disaster aid could be added to the budget without having to be offset with spending cuts.

In the meantime, a one-week stopgap measure needed to avoid a government shutdown at midnight Friday appears likely to be adopted in a sparsely attended House session Thursday. The week-long measure would provide a $2.7 billion infusion of disaster money that would make sure federal help continues to flow to victims of Hurricane Irene and other recent disasters.

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Republicans had stood against Democratic efforts to use deficit spending to pay for the disaster aid.

While it was unclear precisely how long FEMA's remaining funds would last, one official said the agency began conserving funds last month as Hurricane Irene approached the U.S. mainland, prioritizing its aid to help individual disaster victims and pay states and local governments for immediate needs, such as removing debris and building sandbag barricades.

Funding of $450 million has been put on hold for longer-term needs such as reconstruction of damaged roads, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing lack of authority to discuss the matter publicly. In addition, the agency has been able to reclaim unused money from past disasters, the official said.

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