WASHINGTON — In agreeing to an emergency spending bill to avoid a government shutdown, Congress achieved the bare minimum while finessing 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 $1 billion less than approved by tea party Republicans. The cost of that additional $1 billion in disaster assistance was too high for Democrats because it 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 most urgently needed money — for the last few days of the 2011 budget year ending on Friday — with $1 billion cuts in Energy Department loan programs for automobile manufacturers credited with creating jobs. Democrats opposed the idea. Searching for a way out of the impasse, Senate Democratic leaders sought assurances from the administration that the disaster aid program wouldn't run out of money this week; once obtained, Senate leaders jettisoned the disputed money and passed two bare-bones bills to avert a shutdown.
The House, on recess this week, appears likely to endorse that plan in two steps: with a voice vote Thursday on a one-week stopgap measure and a recorded vote next week to keep the government running through Nov. 18. The recorded vote would allow conservatives to register their opposition to the spending rates in the stopgap measure.
The White House, in a letter sent to congressional offices Tuesday, said the $2.7 billion for FEMA would be sufficient to last until at least mid-November. More than $400 million worth of longer-term rebuilding projects that had been put on hold last month can be funded, clearing the way to ease a backlog of needed repairs to roads, parks and public buildings dating to Hurricane Katrina.
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 — including the $1 billion in 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.
Top Republicans on the House and Senate Appropriations committees have endorsed funding disaster aid as an add-on that comes on top of the annual budget "cap" for day-to-day operations of federal agencies. But top House leaders like Speaker John Boehner of Ohio have yet to explicitly endorse the idea, which seems likely to run into opposition from tea party conservatives.
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.