House Republicans have introduced legislation to immediately infuse $1 billion into federal disaster aid accounts as part of a stopgap funding bill that's required to keep the government running past the end of the budget year on Sept. 30. Overall, the measure would provide $3.7 billion in disaster aid, with more money likely to flow in future legislation.
The House move sets up a battle with the Senate, where majority Democrats are trying to muscle through an almost $7 billion disaster relief measure as a stand-alone bill. That legislation largely matches the administration's recently revised aid request. Republicans seem to have the procedural edge in the clash, but the continuing tensions over how to deal with disaster aid come as the government's main disaster relief fund is on track to run dry within two weeks.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund is the main source of help for victims of the widespread flooding and other damage due to Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.
Besides being about half the overall size of the Senate's disaster aid measure, the House bill ties cuts to an Obama-backed loan program to encourage the production of fuel efficient vehicles to pay for the $1 billion in immediate aid for 2011. Typically disaster aid is added to the budget as an emergency expense, and the insistence by Republicans on so-called offsets has Democrats fuming.
"These people whose lives have been devastated ... they don't have time for some budget guy in Washington to sharpen his pencil and figure out whether or not we respond as Americans to emergency," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. "That's a basic value. This isn't a budget debate. This is purely a political game. And people who are standing in the way should get out of the way."
Senate Democrats are on the political offensive and won a key test vote on Tuesday to break a GOP filibuster. Their measure cleared another procedural test Wednesday but it could be several days before it actually passes.
But by putting the disaster aid funding on a separate piece of legislation that's required to keep the government running, House leaders seem to be calculating that the Senate will have no choice but to go along or risk a partial government shutdown.
Driving the debate is the fact that FEMA's disaster fund is likely to run dry before the end of the budget year. FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said Wednesday that the disaster fund has less than $400 million in it and could be depleted by Sept. 26 _ or sooner if another disaster strikes.
If the fund runs out, FEMA would have to suspend aid to victims of Irene and Lee, which have hit the East with major flooding and other damage, much of it concentrated in states like Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which tend to be hit less frequently by disasters than other states. And FEMA still has emergency costs in Joplin, Missouri and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which were hit by devastating tornadoes this spring.
The FEMA account is so low that new rebuilding projects like rebuilding sewer systems and other public infrastructure have been put on hold to give emergency help like shelter and cash assistance to victims of Irene and Lee.
The White House requested $5.1 billion in additional disaster aid money only last Friday, which had been a source of frustration for lawmakers responsible for funding disaster accounts. The administration requested just $1.8 billion for FEMA's disaster funding in February, well short of documented needs to respond to past disasters like hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav and the massive Tennessee floods of last spring. The tornadoes in Joplin and across Alabama this spring only made the problem worse.
In response, House Republicans added $1 billion in disaster aid to a measure funding the Department of Homeland Security _ offset by spending cuts. The Senate has yet to act on the homeland security measure.