Senate Votes Down House Disaster Aid Bill

The Senate voted Friday to reject House-passed legislation to extend disaster aid and government funding, setting up an impasse that could threaten a government shutdown.

The Senate voted, 59-36, to table the $3.7 billion disaster and stopgap spending bill to keep the government running past next Friday, effectively rejecting the package which the GOP-dominated House had approved in the early hours of Friday morning.

Democrats made good on an earlier pledge to defeat the package favored by Republicans, forcing each side to reconsider its options before a planned weeklong recess.The Senate was set to next vote early Monday evening on a new Democratic-led proposal.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said that he had spoken with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., shortly before Friday's Senate vote, with little effect.

"There wasn't much progress made," the Republican Speaker said.

Friday morning's events promise to push the partisan war into the weekend and could increase the chances that the government's main disaster aid account at the Federal Emergency Management Agency might run dry early next week.

Additionally, unless Congress acts by midnight next Friday, much of the government will shut down. More immediate is the threat that the government's main disaster aid account will run out of money early next week.

The House was set to adjourn Friday for a weeklong break that would essentially prevent lawmakers from approving any final deal that would be negotiated. Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who sets the House schedule, have said it is the Senate's responsibility to act on the disaster aid bill, setting up a possible game of brinksmanship between the two chambers.

Reid, speaking on the Senate floor shortly following the vote, scheduled a vote on a new measure for Monday afternoon; Republicans pushed unsuccessfully for an immediate vote. The weekend time span would give leaders in both parties time to negotiate a potential compromise.

More broadly, the renewed partisanship over what should be routine moves to help disaster victims and prevent a government shutdown sends a discouraging sign as a bitterly divided Washington looks ahead to more significant debates on President Barack Obama's jobs plan and efforts by a congressional supercommittee to slash deficits.

Republicans argue their package is responsible, and provides more than adequate amounts of disaster relief funding. Democrats want a much larger infusion of disaster aid and they're angry over cuts totaling $1.6 trillion from clean energy programs — and the strong-arm tactics being tried by the House.
Story: Disaster aid bill fails in Republican-led House

Thursday's maneuvering in the House started as Republicans controlling the House moved to resurrect the disaster aid package after an embarrassing loss on Wednesday.

Instead of reaching out to Democrats, House GOP leaders looked to persuade wayward Tea Party Republicans to change their votes and help approve the assistance — and try to force Senate Democrats into a corner with little choice but to accept cuts to clean energy programs they favor. One sweetener for conservatives was to add $100 million in savings from a program that financed a federal loan to the now-bankrupt solar panel maker Solyndra Inc.

Republicans had hoped that once the House passed the measure, Senate Democrats would have had little choice but to accept it, especially with lawmakers eager to escape Washington for a weeklong recess. The move instead infuriated Democrats, who felt GOP leaders were trying to "jam" them into accepting the GOP bill.

The battling came as the stock market absorbed heavy losses and pessimism about the economy deepened. The arguing was reminiscent of the poisonous atmosphere of this summer rather than lawmakers' more recent promises to work together to find common ground where possible.

Time is running short for disaster victims.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Thursday that the government's main disaster aid account is "running on fumes" and could be tapped out as early as early next week. She called on Congress to quickly resolve the problem or risk delays in getting disaster projects approved.

"We have stretched this as far as it can go," Napolitano told The Associated Press as she flew to Joplin, Mo., to view tornado damage. "We are scraping the bottom of the barrel."

As of Thursday morning, there was just $212 million in the FEMA's disaster relief fund. The House measure contains $3.7 billion in disaster aid, mostly for the FEMA fund. A rival Senate measure muscled through that chamber last week by Reid — with the help of 10 Republicans — would provide $6.9 billion.

The drama and battling over disaster aid and stopgap spending is unusual. Such measures usually pass routinely since the alternative is shutting down much of the government and denying help to victims of floods, hurricanes and other disasters.

What is more, the House GOP plan won bipartisan support in June when it passed as part of a broader homeland security spending bill. And the $3.7 billion in House aid would provide sufficient help while lawmakers work out a broader spending bill for the 2012 budget year beginning Oct. 1.

Senate Democrats are instead insisting on fully funding most disaster aid programs as part of the stopgap measure, an unusual move.

The current imbroglio illustrates the difficulty lawmakers are sure to have when trying to address tougher problems. The toughest task confronts the so-called supercommittee, which is supposed to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in deficit savings over the coming decade to implement the August budget and debt pact.

The panel had its third public meeting Thursday, again exposing differences between Republicans and Democrats on taxes. The panel has until Thanksgiving to produce legislation — and there's no sign yet of much progress toward agreement.

Before this week's eruption, the Senate had had an unusually productive week. For example, it voted Thursday to help American workers who fall victim to foreign competition. The move to renew expired portions of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which provides retraining and financial support for workers adversely affected by trade, sets the stage for Obama to submit trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

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