CQ TODAY ONLINE NEWS - September 26, 2011, By Richard E. Cohen, CQ Staff
The Senate moved late Monday to give House Republicans two options to avoid a government shutdown this weekend and put an end to a dispute over offsets to disaster aid money.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, could ask his colleagues to clear a six-week continuing resolution (HR 2608) passed Monday by the Senate. It would provide $2.65 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other disaster aid programs, instead of the $3.65 billion in the version the House barely passed last week.
Or, the House might consider a separate Senate-passed measure (HR 2017) that would keep the government operating for a few days past the Oct. 1 start of fiscal 2012 and that would allow time for further deliberations on the longer-term bill.
The House is scheduled to meet in pro forma session Sept. 29, the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana. House leaders held a conference call with rank-and-file members Monday night, after the Senate acted, to consider their options.
By removing $1 billion in disaster aid for fiscal 2011 that was in the House-passed bill, the Senate averted a standoff with the House over rescinding $1.6 billion for loan guarantees to promote energy efficiency. The rescission was intended to offset the current-year disaster money, and without the fiscal 2011 funds, the offset was no longer needed.
The breakthrough came after FEMA officials said its Disaster Relief Fund had enough money to edge into the new fiscal year.
Boehner and his leadership team consulted with rank-and-file lawmakers over whether to clear a stopgap spending bill by unanimous consent or call the entire House back to the Capitol for what could be a routine vote.
Under House rules, unanimous consent allows a single member on either side of the aisle to object, and thus stymie the deal, although the Speaker wields far more power over recalcitrant lawmakers than do Senate leaders.
The flurry of action Monday came amid increasingly bitter charges between the two parties and the two chambers. And the latest example of political brinkmanship over federal spending, deficit reduction and taxes raised doubts that a joint deficit reduction committee will be able to come up with a bipartisan deal to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over the decade.
If that does not happen, a provision in this summer's debt ceiling law (PL 112-25) means that steep cuts would be provided in domestic discretionary and Pentagon spending.
The series of Senate votes Monday started with a cloture motion on an amendment to the House's CR by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Reid proposed the same bill as the House, but without the offsets to the $1 billion in fiscal 2011 disaster aid. That motion was rejected, 54-35, six votes short of the 60 required.
Immediately after, Reid moved on to a deal that he struck with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that allowed the Senate to strip the fiscal 2011 aid - as well as the accompanying offsets - from the House's stopgap spending measure. The newly amended CR passed 79-12.
Next, the Senate passed by voice vote the separate "clean" stopgap spending measure, using the bill that had carried fiscal 2012 Homeland Security appropriations.
That bill, which would keep the government operating through Oct. 4, would serve as an insurance plan if House leaders are unable to win consent from their conference to accept the Senate's changes to the longer-term funding measure.
Citing a comment from Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Reid said that "there is nothing to fight about" in the amended bill. Later, Reid said his aides had been in close consultation during the weekend with their counterparts in Boehner's office, but he declined to comment on whether an agreement with Boehner was also reached on how the House would proceed.
McConnell said "this entire fire drill was completely unnecessary." He added that Republicans were vindicated by the Democrats' removal of "billions more in emergency funds Democrats have been calling for."
Amid strained relations with the Democrat-controlled Senate, House Republican leaders were less than pleased with the turn of events.
"Washington Democrats attempted to grandstand and delay needed disaster relief to score political points," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Monday. "Republicans stood firm, and Senate Democrats have conceded that the spending level in the House-passed bill was the most responsible solution. If it weren't for House GOP efforts, the American taxpayers would have been on the hook for even more reckless borrowing by Washington Democrats."
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who was harshly criticized by Senate Democrats, particularly Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, for his advocacy of offsets to the disaster assistance, returned fire after the Senate vote.
"It's surprising that just days after claiming that recent natural disasters required up to $7 billion in immediate funding, Harry Reid and Senate Democrats would now rather reduce funding for disaster aid by $1 billion rather than reduce corporate subsidies," Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring said. "It's regrettable that the priorities of Senate Democrats are so backward, and it has left very few options."
Landrieu, chairwoman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said Monday's votes in the Senate should spell an end to the idea of offsetting disaster aid, which she attributed to Cantor.
"The Cantor doctrine has been rejected, and Eric Cantor better think twice, or three times, before he suggests it again," Landrieu said, adding that she would be willing to "work with him in other ways, and on other ideas that he might have."
When asked about FEMA's new estimates on how long the Disaster Relief Fund could continue to provide assistance, Landrieu said the agency shifted expenses to get through the end of the fiscal year. She noted that FEMA already has taken steps to ration money in the fund.
Issue of Offsets
In a sense, the conflict settled down to a relatively minor issue: whether and how to offset some of the House-passed version's $3.65 billion in disaster relief funds, a level the Senate deal trimmed to $2.65 billion after shelving the $1 billion from current year disaster funding.
The House and Senate had resolved most of the larger issues over spending levels for the rest of the government, although House conservatives are not pleased that both the Senate and House versions set spending at a rate reflecting the $1.043 trillion limit set by the debt limit law, a level that exceeds the $1.019 billion cap set by the budget resolution (H Con Res 34) the House approved in April.
But the dispute quickly moved to the political front-burner - not only because of the possibility of a government shutdown, but also because of the stories of many Americans suffering from recent tornado or flooding damage and in need of aid. Cantor repeatedly accused Reid of "playing politics" by not accepting the House's plan.
"This is absurd," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees FEMA. "We should not be going to the brink each time. . . . We're faced with FEMA actually running out of money, and with the prospect of another government shutdown. We simply cannot allow either of those things to happen."
But with centrists in short supply, most lawmakers - and especially party leaders - had resorted to political finger-pointing. And lawmakers again found themselves under heavy public criticism, after having returned from the August recess with promises to reduce some of the vitriol that surrounded this summer's extended debate over increasing the federal debt ceiling.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said following the Senate's vote Monday evening, "It is time for House Republicans to put an end to their latest manufactured crisis so taxpayers can continue to receive the services they've already paid for and to join Democrats in meeting American's top priority: jobs."
The House still faces decisions on when and how to handle the two continuing resolutions. Leaders must decide whether to deal with them separately or simply to move the measure to extend government spending until Nov. 18, action that would render unnecessary the shorter-term bill. They will have to set a date for House action and decide whether to seek voice-vote approval of at least the short-term measure.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a former member of the House leadership, said, "I think the House will pass the [brief] CR." But, he added, "I can't imagine the House leaders would want to [pass by unanimous consent] more than a five-day CR."
So far, the Obama administration does not seem concerned about a potential government shutdown. The Office of Management and Budget is not directing government agencies to begin the serious preparations needed if funds were to be shut off.
"We don't think anyone wants a government shutdown, which would be highly disruptive and costly to taxpayers," an OMB spokeswoman said.
The information above is for general awareness only and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Economic Adjustment or the Department of Defense as a whole.