What could have been a routine bill to provide disaster aid for American hurricane, flood and fire-ravaged victims turned into another bitter showdown over spending in Congress on Friday.
The Democratic-controlled Senate blocked a Republican-run House bill that would fund federal agencies and provide $3.7-billion in disaster assistance, partly paying for that aid with cuts in two Energy Department loan programs that finance technological development – one of the President’s favourite alternative energy programs.
Disaster funding could run out as early as Tuesday and a broader government shutdown looms the following weekend because partisan gridlock means none of the dozen annual spending bills have been passed.
In the latest bout of nasty brinkmanship, both Republicans and Democrats blamed the other for playing politics while Americans suffer. Victims of floods in North Dakota and Hurricane Irene’s devastation up the East Coast may be denied promised help.
Republicans cried foul, accusing Democrats of trying to surreptitiously add to the nation’s crippling debt and saying the President’s party was trying to funnel $3.7-billion into disaster relief without finding the money to pay for it.
“What’s at stake is whether we’re going to add to the debt or not,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.
The White House counterpunched, accusing Republicans of a repeat of the summer’s bitter partisan standoff over raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
“The fever hasn’t broken – the behaviour that we saw this summer that really repelled Americans continues,” Mr. Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said.
The latest sparring over refilling the disaster coffers at FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is just the latest squabble as both parties vie for political advantage.
The House bill also included emergency funding to keep the government running from the start of the next fiscal year – Oct. 1 – until Nov 18. But while some believed a deal had been cooked to accept reduced funding for FEMA partially paid for by cuts to alternative energy programs, the arrangement fell through in an echo of the ‘on-again, off-again’ deals that turned raising the debt-ceiling into a festering political sore all summer.
“We’re fed up with this … we’re sick of it, we’re tired of it,” said Senator Dick Durbin, the Democrat Whip. He accused Republicans of taking the “outrageous view that you have to kill jobs in American to pay for disasters.”
Mr. McConnell rejected calls to fill FEMA’s coffers without corresponding spending cuts elsewhere. “The whole, ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ argument is the reason we’ve got a $14-trillion debt right now,” he said.
Sorting out the latest mess will likely force both the Senate and the House of Representatives to abandon plans to take next week off.