Congress At Odds Over Disaster Aid Dollars

By | September 13, 2011

U.S. Republicans and Democrats in Congress moved to quickly approve disaster aid Monday but remained at odds over the amount of money needed to help victims of floods, tornadoes and hurricanes.

With the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster-relief fund running dangerously low, top Republicans in the House of Representatives said they would attach up to $1 billion to a must-pass spending bill that is expected to pass Congress next week.

In the Senate, Democrats tried to attach about $7 billion in disaster aid to a separate bill, but they were blocked by Republicans who said they wanted time to examine the measure.

The parliamentary maneuvering underscored the stark divide between the two parties even as they try to show voters they can work together.

President Barack Obama requested $5.1 billion last week to help victims of floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters in one of the most extreme years for weather in U.S. history.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will need about $500 million to ensure it does not run out of money in the next several weeks, according to the White House.

FEMA has already suspended some payments for longer-term projects to ensure that money remains for the more pressing needs of victims of last month’s Hurricane Irene and other recent disasters.

Republicans want to offset that money with spending cuts elsewhere to avoid deepening the country’s budget woes, but they have been careful to say the aid will not get held up by spending concerns.

House Republicans said they would attach between $500 million and $1 billion to a stopgap spending bill that is expected to clear Congress next week. More money would presumably come later.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said that was not enough.

“We’re not going to accept some small number that the House sends us,” he said on the Senate floor.

After Senate Republicans blocked his attempt to add about $7 billion to a bill that continues sanctions on Burma, Reid said he would try again. Another vote could come as soon as Tuesday, and an aide suggested that it could be modified to win more Republican support.

Congress must pass the stopgap bill by the end of the month to ensure that the government will keep operating when the new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.

Budget battles have pushed the country to the edge of default and the brink of a government shutdown this year, but that’s not likely to be the case with this spending bill, a top Republican said.

“The risk of bringing about brinkmanship or another potential shutdown is not something now that we need, it is not something that would be helpful to create jobs and regain confidence,” said Representative Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; editing by Sandra Maler and Cynthia Osterman)

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