Disaster relief funds hit partisan wall in Congress

By Reuters
Friday, September 23, 2011 13:29 EDT
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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With aid to disaster victims running out, Congress on Friday ratcheted up a high-stakes confrontation over spending that once again threatens the government’s ability to function smoothly.

By a vote of 59 to 36, the Democratic-controlled Senate rejected a broad spending bill that had passed the Republican-controlled House of Representative hours earlier.

Lawmakers from both sides said the bill, which would keep the government running beyond the end of September and provide badly needed aid to victims of recent floods, tornadoes and other disasters, should not be controversial.

But the bitter partisan divide over spending that has dominated Washington this year once again threatened Congress’ ability to pass even the most basic legislation as lawmakers squabbled over two provisions that account for a fraction of the trillion-dollar-plus bill.

Aid for disaster victims could dry up by Tuesday if Congress does not replenish a dwindling relief fund. Congress also must extend funding for the entire government to avoid a shutdown on September 30, the end of the fiscal year.

Democrats want to increase the amount of disaster funding and remove a cut to an electric-car program that Republicans included to partially offset the added disaster costs.

With both chambers eager to adjourn for a week-long recess, it was not immediately clear how Congress would resolve the standoff.

The dispute throws into question lawmakers’ ability to find common ground on the more painful choices they will have to confront in the coming months as a special bipartisan committee searches for trillions of dollars in budget savings.

“Any delay that occurs because of inaction in the Senate will only imperil needed disaster relief for these thousands of families all across our country,” House Speaker John Boehner said at a news conference.

Boehner and other Republican leaders have promised to lower the temperature onCapitol Hill after fierce budget battles with Democrats pushed the government to the brink of a shutdown in April and the edge of default in August.

The months of turmoil in Washington have spooked consumers, rattled investors and led to a cut in the country’s top-notch AAA credit rating.

Boehner said he spoke with the Senate’s top Democrat, Harry Reid, before the vote. “There wasn’t much progress made,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Thomas Ferraro; editing by Doina Chiacu)

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