Dems lose FEMA funds but dodge political bullet in spending deal

Senate Democrats dropped their demands for more disaster spending as part of Monday night’s spending bill, but also dodged a political bullet in the process.

After weeks of protesting that federal disaster aid programs need billions of dollars in new appropriations, Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidTrump gets chance to remake the courts Democrats local party problem Trump flirts with Dems for Cabinet MORE (D-Nev.) and his caucus agreed to language that doesn't include supplemental funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and essentially matches House-approved language.

The spending bill that finally passed the Senate includes just $2.65 billion for FEMA, money that comes from its regular fiscal 2012 appropriation. That’s the same level of funding included in the legislation approved by the GOP-dominated House, which won only six Democratic votes in the lower chamber and is a far cry from the $6.9 billion in additional funds Senate Democrats were pushing for less than two weeks ago.

ADVERTISEMENT
On its face, the lower level of disaster spending was quite a climb-down for Democrats, who for weeks have worked to paint Republicans as unsympathetic to communities ravaged by hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding.

Yet there was a sense of relief among Reid’s caucus on Monday.

Without an agreement on a funding measure, the government could have shut down after Friday, and Democrats likely would have shared in the blame.

“We've averted disaster until the next one,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a centrist who voted in favor of a procedural motion on the House GOP funding bill last week. He said Monday he was pleased to see bipartisan cooperation in the Senate.

More importantly, Reid and Democrats avoided what would have been a bigger defeat.

Reid — who vowed last week he wouldn't “cave” to the House-passed bill — ended up securing a bipartisan agreement without having to simply pass the lower chamber’s measure, which included a spending cut to an environmental program championed by Democrats. Such a move would have been crushing to congressional Democrats, who are still smarting from the summer debt-ceiling deal and last year’s agreement on extending the George W. Bush-era tax rates.

But Reid was only able to do this with some help from FEMA, which earlier on Monday said it could survive without additional funds for fiscal year 2011, which ends after Friday.

This news meant FEMA did not need $1 billion in funds included in the House-approved bill for the current fiscal year. And that meant the $1.5 billion in cuts that Republicans wanted to offset the FEMA spending — to a Department of Energy program used to spur fuel efficiency innovation in the auto industry — were no longer unnecessary.

The final measure also does not include House-approved language that rescinds $100 million from a Department of Energy program that made loans to Solyndra, the now-defunct solar panel company in California that is the subject of GOP investigation.

Reid said Monday that the elimination of the Energy Department offset should “satisfy the Democrats” who see the program as one that helps boost U.S. job creation.

Not one Democrat opposed the final spending deal on Monday, while 12 Republicans rejected it in the 79-12 vote.

The elimination of the cut to the Energy program helped Reid and Democrats save face after agreeing to a deal that included none of the additional appropriations the caucus had sought for FEMA, money that Democrats said was desperately needed in the wake of Hurricane Irene and other natural disasters.

With the House already out of Washington on recess, Reid and Democrats also got to declare victory at a press conference on Monday night without having to worry about competing events from the GOP.

“We’ve basically resolved this issue,” Reid said at a press conference touting passage of the final bill.

“If they want to go through this again, they are really looking for some more losses,” said Reid. "I don't think this has been a very happy week for my friends in the House.”

But Republicans pounced on FEMA'’s announcement, which they said undercut weeks of Democratic arguments that the agency was in desperate need of money.

“FEMA indicated it already has the funds it needs for the duration of the current CR — which is, basically, this week — without the billions more in funding Democrats have been calling for,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellDriverless car industry embraces Trump’s Transportation pick Trump flirts with Dems for Cabinet Lawmakers eye early exit from Washington MORE (R-Ky.) said. “Quite frankly, I think this is a vindication of what Republicans have been saying all along: Before we spend the taxpayers' money, we should have a real accounting — a real accounting — of what is actually needed.”

This story was posted at 8:57 a.m. and updated at 11:45 a.m.