As winter approaches, Congress cuts funds for home heating help

Just days before the holiday season, the Obama administration released more than $800 million to states as part of a program to help low-income people pay their heating bills during the winter months.

But the move comes as the program, known as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), faces major funding cuts.

A year-end spending bill approved by Congress in recent days slashes funding for LIHEAP. The legislation funds the program at $3.48 billion, down from about $4.7 billion last year. That’s about a 25 percent reduction.

The funding cut met criticism from Northeastern lawmakers, whose constituents rely on LIHEAP during the winter.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDNC chairwoman: If up to me, I’d exclude independents from Dem primaries Clinton allies fume over Sanders's vow to fight on President Obama is urging Congress to pass TPP MORE, an Independent from Vermont, voted against the spending bill in part because of the LIHEAP cuts.

"At a time when heating oil costs are rising, we must at least restore funding at last year's level for this critically important program that helps seniors and families with children," Sanders said in a statement.

Sanders, along with Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Jack ReedJack ReedBill would target retaliation against military sexual assault victims Pentagon: Russian military support for Assad remains strong Fears grow about rising US troop levels in Middle East MORE (D-R.I.), are pushing legislation to fund LIHEAP at last year’s levels. The lawmakers have vowed to push for a vote on the legislation next year when Congress returns from its winter break.

But, amid the cuts to the program, the Department of Health and Human Services said Thursday it will release more than $845 million to states as part of LIHEAP. The funds are included as part of the existing continuing resolution.

“Even as the economy shows signs of improvement, many Americans are struggling to make ends meet,” said George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for children and families at HHS, in a statement. “We are making funds available today to help vulnerable families and seniors pay their heating bills and stay warm during this holiday season and into early 2012.”

Lawmakers praised the move by HHS, but decried the LIHEAP funding cuts in the omnibus spending bill.

“These additional funds will allow states to continue helping households who are struggling in this tough economy this holiday season,” Rep. Edward MarkeyEd MarkeyNew House caucus will help keep hackers out of cars Overnight Tech: Email privacy bill gets its day FDA should ban powdered caffeine, Dems say MORE (D-Mass.) said in a statement. “While I was disappointed that the final national funding levels for LIHEAP were cut $1.2 billion from the previous year, I applaud Secretary [Kathleen] Sebelius for releasing this crucial funding just as the holidays arrive.”

While the omnibus spending bill cuts funding for LIHEAP by 25 percent, President Obama floated even bigger cuts to the program in his fiscal year 2012 budget proposal, proposing to fund the program at $2.5 billion.

Congress greatly increased LIHEAP funding to about $5.1 billion in 2008, when energy prices were high. Obama, in February, said it was time to reduce the program to a “more sustainable level.”

"Energy prices have now gone down but the cost of the program has stayed the same," Obama said at the time.