Shutdown fight looms over disaster aid

Republicans and Democrats plunged into another round of brinksmanship on Tuesday as a fight over disaster aid brought the renewed threat of a government shutdown.

With the House prepared to vote on a bill to keep the government running past Sept. 30, when current funding expires, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the upper chamber would send the bill back if House Republicans did not increase money for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Reid warned that the government could shutter at the end of the month if the dispute was not resolved. “We are not going to cave on this,” he told reporters Tuesday afternoon.

House GOP leaders accused Reid of “playing politics” with disaster aid and urged the Senate to accept their legislation without changes, assuming it clears the House on Wednesday.

“There’s no question that the money is going to be delivered,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told reporters. “This is all about a political game by Harry Reid.”

Cantor said if the House and Senate cannot agree on disaster aid, “it’ll all be on Leader Reid’s shoulders, because he’s the one playing politics with it.”

The recriminations amounted to a fast return to the partisan stalemate that leaders in both parties swore off when lawmakers returned to the Capitol following the August recess. Cantor in particular has said voters are “sick of the rancor” in Washington.

The House bill is a stopgap spending measure, known as a continuing resolution, that would fund the government through Nov. 18. It contains $3.65 billion for FEMA to respond to the natural disasters — Hurricane Irene, the East Coast earthquake, the Texas wildfires and the tornado that devastated Joplin, Mo. — that have hit the country in recent months. The funding is partially offset by a $1.5 billion cut to a Department of Energy loan program for manufacturers of fuel-efficient cars.

The Senate last week passed a standalone measure providing $6.9 billion for FEMA that the House has thus far ignored.

The House and Senate are both scheduled to be on recess next week, increasing pressure on lawmakers to reach an agreement by Friday.

With 10 days remaining and the parties separated by only a few billion dollars, a shutdown still appears unlikely, and Republican leaders in both chambers downplayed the possibility.

“There will not be a government shutdown,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters, predicting an agreement by Thursday night. Hours earlier, Cantor said as much: “No one’s intending to bring about a government shutdown. The country has sort of seen enough of that.”

Reid, however, suggested the threat was real. He said, “I am not that sure” there wouldn’t be a shutdown, specifically distancing himself from McConnell’s prediction. He threatened to keep senators in Washington “all next week” if a deal isn’t reached.

Saying the House bill “shortchanged” FEMA, the majority leader said the Senate would attach the level of disaster funding included in the legislation it approved with bipartisan support last week. That would force the House to vote again, potentially delaying its recess plans.

The House GOP’s chief vote-counter, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), bluntly warned Reid that if the Senate added more FEMA money or eliminated the offsetting cut to the energy program, the revised bill might not get through the House. “If Reid does what he does, I don’t see the votes on the floor for it,” McCarthy said. “He’s holding up the ability of individuals to get their relief.”

Congressional leaders had hoped to head off a repeat of the spring shutdown fight when they agreed, in the August debt deal, on a spending ceiling for fiscal 2012 of $1.043 trillion. House Republicans stuck to that figure when they drafted the stopgap spending measure, despite objections from conservatives who wanted them to insist on deeper spending cuts.

The conservative Heritage Action group is urging Republicans to vote no on the bill, and more than 50 House lawmakers signed a letter drafted by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) pushing the leadership to return to the lower spending cap in the GOP’s budget.

Conservative opposition could force GOP leaders to ask Democrats for help in passing the bill, and their support was far from assured on Tuesday. The No. 2 House Democrat, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), sharply criticized the cuts to the energy loan program for auto manufacturers. 

“We believe the Republicans’ $1.5 billion cut in the advance manufacturing technology initiative is counterproductive to growth in jobs and to growth in the economy. We think they’re making a mistake,” Hoyer told reporters in his weekly briefing. “I think Democrats will be loath to support that effort. We think it’s counterproductive.”

It remains unclear whether Democrats will vote en masse against the bill. The party’s top appropriator, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), has said he would support the bill despite his criticisms of its offsets for disaster aid.

“Clearly, the [continuing resolution] needs to pass, but again, it doesn’t need to pass with this in it,” Hoyer said. “We have not yet made a decision on what we’ll do with this.”

He said Republicans had yet to speak with him about securing votes for the bill. Cantor on Tuesday predicted the spending measure would pass the House.

Separately, 77 House Democrats signed a letter to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) urging him to abandon the cuts to the loan program. They noted that the initiative was first signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007 and said the cuts could cost up to 10,000 jobs. 

“While the government has a responsibility to fund disaster response in places that were devastated by Hurricane Irene or other natural disasters, it is unconscionable to use funds designed to create jobs in manufacturing states to pay for it,” wrote the lawmakers, who were led by Reps. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.). “Many of the states that stand to benefit the most from this program are still suffering from higher-than-average unemployment rates and are badly in need of the kind of good-paying manufacturing jobs these loans will create.”

Bob Cusack, Peter Schroeder and Josiah Ryan contributed.

This story was posted at 12:08 p.m. and updated at 8:55 p.m.