High-stakes disaster aid fight looms in Congress

Reuters News
|
Posted: Sep 20, 2011 5:19 PM
High-stakes disaster aid fight looms in Congress

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congress on Tuesday drifted toward another confrontation that could disrupt wide swaths of the government as Democrats sought to double the amount of disaster aid in a must-pass spending bill.

Republicans said they were confident the dispute would not threaten funds that are needed to keep the government operating past September 30, but the Senate's top Democrat said he didn't know if that was the case.

"We're not going to cave in on this," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said at a news conference.

Budget disputes between the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Democratic-controlled Senate pushed the government to the brink of a shutdown in April and the edge of default in August.

Now the two chambers are headed toward another round of brinkmanship, this time over the emergency aid needed to help local communities recover from one of the most extreme years for weather in U.S. history.

The Obama administration has requested an extra $5.1 billion to help victims of tornadoes, floods and other disasters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster fund has dwindled to $257 million, an aide said, and the agency has already suspended some rebuilding efforts to ensure that victims of Hurricane Irene get immediate help.

Republicans want extra disaster aid to be offset by spending cuts if possible to avoid deepening the country's fiscal woes.

The House is expected to pass a bill on Wednesday that pairs $3.65 billion in disaster relief with a $1.5 billion cut to a program that promotes electric vehicles. Republican leaders say they will approve the rest of the money in the coming months as they look for further budget cuts.

"There's no question the money will be delivered. This is all about a political game for Harry Reid," Representative Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, said at a news conference.

That money will come as part of a stopgap bill that covers government spending through November 18.

SENATE REPUBLICANS DOWNPLAY CONFLICT

Reid and other Democrats say the Republican approach hampers rebuilding efforts and goes against Congress' usual practice of waiving normal budget rules for disaster aid.

"Perhaps they think there's some political benefit in saying no to rebuilding America," Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu said at a news conference.

Reid said he would hold a vote to nearly double the disaster funding in the bill to $6.9 billion. Some 10 Republican senators, many from disaster-hit areas, backed that approach last week. It's unclear whether they would defy their Republican colleagues again.

The House probably would reject a bill that contained those extra funds, said Representative Kevin McCarthy, the chamber's top vote counter.

Top Senate Republicans sought to downplay the conflict. After a year of repeated budget confrontations, lawmakers are eager to assure voters that they can work together to take care of essential business.

"There won't be a government shutdown," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. "Congress has always responded appropriately to disasters. We're having a discussion about the way to do that and I'm confident it will be resolved."

(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Donna Smith; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)