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Government shutdown looms over FEMA fight

From Deirdre Walsh and Ted Barrett, CNN
updated 7:28 PM EDT, Tue September 20, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • FEMA, Army Corps of Engineers would get more money from Senate
  • House wants some disaster relief funding to be offset by cuts
  • House to vote on Wednesday

Washington (CNN) -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday he's not sure a potential government shutdown at the end of the month can be avoided because of a stand-off between the House and Senate over how much to spend on disaster relief.

"I heard reports that Sen. (Senate Republican Leader Mitch) McConnell said there will be no shutdown," Reid told reporters in the Capitol. "I'm not that sure. I'm not that sure because the Tea Party-driven House of Representatives has been so unreasonable in the past. I don't know why they should suddenly be reasonable."

At issue is a short-term bill to fund government agencies through November 18 that the GOP-controlled House will vote on Wednesday. It allocates fewer resources to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers for disaster response than the Democratic-led Senate approved last week. Additional funds are needed because recent major floods from Hurricane Irene along the East Coast and wildfires in Texas exceeded the amount these agencies have left in their coffers to support recovery and rebuilding efforts.

Both the House and Senate are scheduled to take a weeklong recess next week and the current government funding expires September 30.

The GOP measure includes a total of $3.6 billion -- $1 billion in emergency funds available when the bill is enacted and another $2.6 billion to be budgeted for those federal response agencies for the 2012 fiscal year. The Senate bill that passed with bipartisan support last week includes $6.9 billion for FEMA and other federal agencies for immediate disaster relief and for relief in 2012.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama asked Congress for a total of $5.1 billion in additional disaster aid — $500 million of which was for immediate relief.

In addition to the disagreement over how much money these agencies should get, House Republican leaders are insisting that the $1 billion in their bill that those agencies would get right away to cover recovery costs be offset with $1.5 billion in cuts to a loan program that helps automakers retool their operations to make more fuel-efficient cars.

Earlier Tuesday, Reid announced that if the House passes its stopgap-spending bill, the Senate will add the higher amount -- $6.9 billion-- it passed for disaster relief to that bill and send it back to the House, in an attempt to force the House GOP to accept the higher level. Reid's tough stand comes partly because he feels emboldened after 10 Senate Republicans, mostly from disaster-hit states, voted with the Democrats last week to approve that aid.

However, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor made it clear the GOP won't budge, and accused the Democrats of using the issue for political gain.

"It'll be on Leader Reid's shoulders because he's the one playing politics with it. No one wants to stand in the way of disaster relief money that is needed. There is nothing else but politics going on with that move, if that's what happens," Cantor told reporters Tuesday.

Reid accused House Republicans of "pettiness" in their allocation of disaster relief and said it would be "illogical" to expect the Senate to go along with it or to accept the blame if the government shuts down.

Despite the sound and fury between Reid and Cantor, McConnell expressed some optimism that a deal will be struck.

"There won't be a government shutdown," he said. "The Congress always responds appropriately to disasters. We're having a discussion about the appropriate way to do that and I'm confident it will be resolved."

The House GOP spending bill keeps federal agencies funded at the rate set in the debt deal enacted last month. Earlier this year Congress averted a government shutdown at the 11th hour when House Speaker John Boehner and Reid negotiated a compromise on overall spending levels. Many on Capitol Hill believed a similar showdown would be avoided this fall because the debt deal already established how much would be cut. But this battle over disaster aid revives the possibility of a shutdown.

A group of close to 70 House Democrats sent a letter to House Republican leaders urging them to bring up the Senate measure without any spending offsets for the FEMA money in it.

"The families that remain without homes in shelters are not interested in seeing more gridlock in Washington. The farmers who lost their crops and livestock do not care about debates over deficits and offsets. The entrepreneurs who lost their small businesses cannot afford to see us play politics," the letter states.

But House GOP Whip Rep Kevin McCarthy, R-California, predicted Tuesday the Senate bill wouldn't pass in the House. "If Reid does what he does, I don't see the votes on the floor."

The top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Rep Norm Dicks, D-Washington, said last week he objects to the practice of offsetting emergency money for natural disaster, but said he would support the bill because he wants to avoid a potential shutdown.

But the Democrats' vote-counter in the House, Rep Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, predicted the Republican plan to offset additional disaster aid won't get much Democratic support, "I think Democrats will be loath to support that effort, because we think it's counterproductive."

Hoyer maintained that cutting the loan program run by the Department of Energy by $1.5 billion "puts at risk some 30,000 to 50,000 jobs that would be created we believe by that investment."

In addition to the fight over the disaster money, House Republican leaders are also dealing with a rebellion from a group of about 50 House conservatives who oppose the spending measure because the overall funding level is $24 billion above the level House Republicans included in the 2012 budget they passed earlier this year.

Despite the blowback on both sides of the aisle, Cantor predicted the House would pass the spending bill when it comes up for a vote on Wednesday.

Boehner declined to answer a question Tuesday about whether he was worried about Congress heading for a shutdown. But his spokesman Kevin Smith continued to press for the Senate to accept the House bill, saying, "We believe the best approach is for the Senate to pass the House (measure) to ensure we get disaster relief to those affected communities as quickly as possible."

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