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US shutdown avoided by disaster aid accord

Senator Mary Landrieu spoke to reporters as colleagues Charles Schumer (left), Debbie Stabenow, and Harry Reid listened. Senator Mary Landrieu spoke to reporters as colleagues Charles Schumer (left), Debbie Stabenow, and Harry Reid listened. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
By David Espo
Associated Press / September 27, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Ending weeks of political brinkmanship, Congress finessed a dispute over disaster aid last night and advanced legislation to avoid a partial government shutdown this weekend.

The breakthrough came hours after the Federal Emergency Management Agency indicated it had enough money for disaster relief efforts through Friday. That disclosure allowed lawmakers to jettison a $1 billion replenishment that had been included in the measure - and to crack the gridlock it had caused.

The Democratic-controlled Senate approved the measure on a bipartisan vote of 79 to 12, sending it to the Republican-controlled House for a final sign-off. There was no immediate comment from House Republican leaders, although their agreement seemed a formality after the party’s Senate leader signed off.

The events assured that there would be no interruption in assistance to areas battered by disasters such as Hurricane Irene and tornadoes and also that the government would be able to run normally when the new budget year begins on Saturday.

The agreement also spelled the end to the latest in a string of political standoffs between Democrats and Republicans over deficits, spending, and taxes that have rattled financial markets and coincided with polls showing congressional approval ratings at historically low levels.

“This compromise should satisfy Republicans . . . and it should satisfy Democrats,’’ said Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who added that Budget Director Jacob Lew had informed him that FEMA did not need any additional funding to meet its needs for the final few days of the budget year.

“It’s a win for everyone,’’ Reid declared.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said it was a “reasonable way to keep the government operational.’’

But not even the dispute-resolving agreement prevented Democrats from proceeding to a politically charged vote earlier in the evening that was designed to force Republicans to decide whether immediate aid to disaster victims or deficit concerns held a higher priority.

And the rhetoric was far harsher during the day on the Senate floor, when Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, unleashed an unusually personal attack on House majority leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, saying the weekslong dispute started when he said, “before we can provide help we need to find offsets in the budget.’’

She called that “the Cantor doctrine’’ and said the dispute “could have been avoided if Cantor had just said, ‘I’m sorry, but I made a mistake.’ But instead of saying that, he doubled down,’’ she said.

Laena Fallon, a spokeswoman for Cantor, responded that he had “never said the things she alleged, he has only suggested that we ought to provide disaster aid dollars to those who need them in a responsible way - something that she’s voted to block despite the urgent need.’’

In fact, House Republicans insisted that any new disaster aid for the expiring budget year be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget, a decision that Democrats seized on in hopes of reshaping the political terrain to their advantage.

Because the House is on a one-week break, it was not immediately clear how the legislation would be cleared for President Obama’s signature.

Among the options are passage of a temporary funding measure, to be passed in a brief session of the House planned for Thursday, that would keep government agencies in funds until lawmakers return on Oct. 4. The Senate approved the bill without objections.

Alternatively, GOP leaders could call the full House back into session this week for a vote.

Either way, the agreement assures funding until Nov. 18.

FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said the agency had $114 million left in its disaster relief fund, enough to last until Thursday or Friday, the final business day of the current budget year. She said the exact timing would depend on the number of emergency victims who apply for aid, and whether any new disasters occur.

FEMA officials had said previously the funds would run out early this week. That concern prompted the Obama administration a few weeks ago to ask Congress to approve a replenishment to tide the agency over through Sept. 30, the end to the federal fiscal year.

House Republicans agreed weeks ago to provide $1 billion and include the money in a bill that also provides money for most federal agencies for the first few weeks of the 2012 budget year.

At the same time, they insisted on cutting spending elsewhere by $1.5 billion to prevent the deficit from rising, an amount later raised to $1.6 billion.

That, in turn, produced a quick attack from Senate Democrats, who opposed cuts.

While it was unclear precisely how long FEMA’s remaining funds would last, one official said the agency began conserving funds last month as Hurricane Irene approached the mainland, prioritizing its aid to help individual disaster victims and pay states and local governments for immediate needs such as removing debris and building sandbag barricades.

Funding of $450 million has been put on hold for longer-term needs such as reconstruction of damaged roads, the official said. In addition, the agency has been able to reclaim unused money from past disasters, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing lack of authority to discuss the matter publicly.