Congress averts partial shutdown; disaster aid dispute surmounted
WASHINGTON -- Ending weeks of political brinkmanship, Congress finessed a dispute over disaster aid Monday night and advanced legislation to avoid a partial government shutdown only days away.
The agreement ensured there would be no interruption in assistance to areas battered by disasters such as Hurricane Irene and last spring's tornado in Joplin, Mo., and also that the government would be able to run normally when the new budget year begins Saturday.
The Senate approved the resolution after a day of behind-the-scenes talks and occasionally biting debate, spelling an end to the latest in a string of standoffs between Democrats and Republicans over deficits, spending and taxes. Those fights have rattled financial markets and coincided with polls showing congressional approval ratings at historically low levels
The breakthrough came hours after the Federal Emergency Management Agency indicated it had enough money for disaster relief efforts through Friday. That disclosure allowed lawmakers to jettison a $1 billion replenishment that had been included in the measure -- and to crack the gridlock it had caused.
The Democratic-controlled Senate approved the measure on a bipartisan vote of 79-12, sending it to the Republican-controlled House for a final signoff.
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.
"This compromise should satisfy Republicans ... and it should satisfy Democrats," said Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, who added that budget director Jacob Lew had informed him that FEMA did not need any additional funding to meet its needs for the final few days of the budget year.
"It's a win for everyone," said Reid, who had spent much of the past few weeks accusing Republicans of choosing to heed the wishes of tea party adherents rather than the needs of their own constituents battered by acts of nature.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said it was a "reasonable way to keep the government operational."
But he got in a final jab at Democrats, noting that the disaster funds sought by the Obama administration and its allies in Congress were now known to be unneeded.
"In my view, this entire fire drill was completely unnecessary," he said.
But not even the dispute-resolving agreement prevented Democrats from proceeding to a politically charged vote earlier in the evening that was designed to force Republicans to decide whether immediate aid to disaster victims or deficit concerns held a higher priority.
And the rhetoric was far harsher during the day on the Senate floor, when Mary Landrieu, D-La., unleashed an unusually personal attack on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., saying the weeks-long controversy started when he said, "Before we can provide help we need to find offsets in the budget."
She called that "the Cantor doctrine" and said the controversy "could have been avoided if Cantor had just said, 'I'm sorry, but I made a mistake.' But instead of saying that, he doubled down," she said.
Laena Fallon, a spokeswoman for Cantor, responded that the Virginia Republican had "never said the things she alleged, he has only suggested that we ought to provide disaster aid dollars to those who need them in a responsible way -- something that she's voted to block despite the urgent need."
In fact, House Republicans insisted that any new disaster aid for the expiring budget year be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget, a decision that Democrats seized on in hopes of reshaping the political terrain to their advantage.
Because the House is on a one-week break, it was not immediately clear how the legislation would be cleared for President Barack Obama's signature.
Among the options are passage of a temporary funding measure, to be passed in a brief session of the House planned for Thursday, that would keep government agencies in funds until lawmakers return Oct. 4. The Senate approved the bill without objections.
Alternatively, GOP leaders could call the full House back into session this week for a vote.
Either way, the agreement assures funding until Nov. 18.
FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen, said the agency had $114 million left in its disaster relief fund, enough to last until Thursday or Friday, the final business day of the current budget year. She said the exact timing would depend on the number of emergency victims who apply for aid, and whether any new disasters occur.
FEMA officials had said previously the funds would run out early this week. That concern prompted the Obama administration a few weeks ago to ask Congress to approve a replenishment to tide the agency over through the Sept. 30 end to the fiscal year.
House Republicans agreed weeks ago to provide $1 billion and include the money in a bill that also provides money for most federal agencies for the first few weeks of the 2012 budget year. At the same time, they insisted on cutting spending elsewhere in the budget by $1.5 billion to prevent the deficit from rising, an amount later raised to $1.6 billion.
That, in turn, produced a quick attack from Senate Democrats, who opposed cuts.
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 sand bag barricades.
Funding of $450 million has been put on hold for longer-term needs such as reconstruction of damaged roads, the official said. In addition, the agency has been able to reclaim unused money from past disasters, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing lack of authority to discuss the matter publicly.
Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this story.