Senate to Reject House Disaster Aid, Flood Program Bill

By Andy Sullivan and Thomas Ferraro | September 23, 2011

With aid to disaster victims running out, the U.S. Senate Democratic leader Friday vowed to hold a quick vote to defeat a House-passed spending bill, clearing the way for negotiations to avoid a government shutdown.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he planned a morning discussion with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to discuss how to craft a bill that could be more palatable to Democrats.

Congress is up against a Sept. 30 deadline, when the fiscal year ends and government money runs out. [If the branches do not agree on a bill, the federal flood insurance program will be among the programs expiring on Sept. 30.]

“We expect a vote very quickly,” Reid said at the opening of the Senate, adding the chamber was awaiting the bill that passed early Friday in the Republican-led House of Representatives.

Adding to the urgency, aid for victims of tornadoes, wildfires and other disasters could dry up by Monday if Congress does not replenish a dwindling relief fund. Funding for everything from national parks to law enforcement could expire in a week.

Even in the face of rock-bottom approval ratings of Congress, the dispute saw lawmakers struggling to bridge their differences to pass even the most essential legislation.

By a largely party-line vote of 219 to 203, the House in an after-midnight vote approved a bill that would keep the government running through Nov. 18 and provide $3.65 billion for disaster relief in one of the most extreme years for weather in U.S. history.

In a statement late Thursday, Reid vowed to defeat the House Republican bill.

“It fails to provide the relief that our fellow Americans need as they struggle to rebuild their lives in the wake of floods, wildfires and hurricanes and it will be rejected by the Senate,” Reid said.

House Republican leaders had to quickly rewrite the bill after an earlier defeat in order to minimize defections from lawmakers aligned with the conservative Tea Party movement.

Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the bill on the grounds that disaster aid was inadequate. They said a $1.5 billion cut to an electric-vehicle program, included to partially offset the increased disaster aid, would kill some jobs in hard-hit states like Michigan.

The No. 2 House Republican, Eric Cantor, brushed off Reid’s threat and said the House intended to adjourn for a week-long break Friday.

“I guess Harry Reid will have to bear the burden of denying the disaster victims the money that they need,” Cantor told reporters.

House Speaker John Boehner said the dispute would not lead to a government shutdown. Congress has more than a week to resolve its differences, and every spending debate this year has gone down to the wire.


Boehner and other Republican leaders have promised to lower the temperature on Capitol 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.

Republican leaders have struggled at times to rein in a Tea Party faction that has shown no appetite for compromise, even as a special bipartisan committee searches for hundreds of billions in budget savings that will likely require painful sacrifices for Republicans and Democrats alike.

At a closed-door meeting Thursday, Boehner told the holdouts that their stubbornness would weaken their party’s bargaining position with the Senate.

That was evidently enough to convince 24 Republicans to change their position.

The revived bill included one tweak: it killed a $100 million dollar loan for Solyndra, the failed solar-panel maker that has drawn scrutiny for its ties to the Obama administration. That would have little practical effect, as the company has already declared bankruptcy and the loan program is set to expire next week.

(Editing by Vicki Allen and Bill Trott)

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