Hurricane disaster aid at stake as lawmakers feud
WASHINGTON — Polarized US lawmakers hunted Monday for a way to defuse an angry spending feud that risked choking off disaster relief in Hurricane Irene’s wake and even threatened a government shutdown at week’s end.
Barely two months after a debt-limit battle cost Washington its sterling debt rating and weighed the already stumbling US economy down with more doubts, the divided US Congress had just days to break its paralysis.
The Senate was to vote at 5:30 p.m. (2130 GMT) on a Democratic bill that would replenish a key disaster relief fund expected to run dry this week while keeping government agencies open past the October 1 dawn of fiscal year 2012.
Failure to reach a deal by Saturday would shut down services deemed non-essential as lawmakers in the world’s richest country figure out how to meet cash-strapped Washington’s obligations.
“If there were ever a time when we have the obligation to do the job at hand, it’s here,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who insisted “there’s no more time to waste.”
It was far from clear that Reid would corral the seven Republicans he needed to reach the 60 votes required to advance the bill, which would also fund the US government through November 18.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said that the fund, drained by devastating tornadoes, Texas wildfires, and Hurricane Irene, had barely $114 million dollars left, perhaps enough to get to Thursday or Friday.
The Republican-led House of Representatives last week passed its own version of the legislation, then adjourned for a week-long recess, effectively daring the Senate not to pass its bill.
“It’s hard to negotiate with people who aren’t here,” Reid complained.
Senate Democrats opposed the House version because it demanded $1.6 billion in cuts to clean-energy programs to offset money for FEMA, which would get about one billion dollars in immediate funding.
Reid’s bill embraced the House Republicans’ $3.65 billion in disaster aid but scrapped the spending cuts, including $100 million from a program that provided a loan to Solyndra, a bankrupt solar-panel firm with ties to the White House.
Democrats have charged the spending cuts could cost about 50,000 jobs, but the new measure needed 60 votes to advance and Democrats numbered just 53.
“I’m pretty confident it will not” pass, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday.
The battle came as a new Gallup poll found that 69 percent of Americans had little or no confidence in Congress, an all-time high and up from 63 percent in 2010, while 57 percent had little or no confidence in the government’s ability to solve domestic problems.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said as the dispute boiled over on Friday that lawmakers were engaging in “the kind of behavior that we saw this summer that really repelled most Americans.”
“This should not be that hard,” said Carney, who accused House Republicans of “playing politics with something that is the basic responsibility of Congress, which is to fund the government.”
The Senate had initially passed a bill including nearly $7 billion in disaster aid, including an immediate half-billion dollars for the FEMA fund.
The House bill included $3.65 billion in disaster aid with about $1 billion for the fund but offset those numbers with about $1.6 billion in cuts to clean energy programs.
The Senate voted 59-36 on Friday to set aside the House measure, which cleared that chamber in a largely party-line 219-203 vote.