Efforts to shore up FEMA disaster aid advanced Tuesday in the Senate, setting up a showdown with the Republican-led House where leaders have insisted supplemental aid be paid for with comparable spending cuts elsewhere.
On a 61-38 vote, the Senate advanced a $5.1 billion aid package for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund, on par with what President Obama has requested, for the agency that is running out of money and already begun prioritizing assistance.
House Republicans approved a much smaller aid package, before Hurricane Irene ran up the Eastern Seaboard, and insisted that any supplemental funds be off-set with reductions elsewhere in the federal budget. GOP leaders are preparing a new proposal this week.
“How can people stand in the way?” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), the chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security. “Do they think we’re being too generous here?”
Congress is heading toward a stalemate as FEMA’s accounts are dwindling. Aid for victims of disasters is expected to run out sometime around the end of the fiscal year, which is Sept. 30.
FEMA has already postponed rebuilding efforts in areas, including Joplin, Mo., that suffered damages from earlier disasters, and the agency is using its remaining funds to provide immediate food, shelter and debris removal for victims of more recent disasters, namely Hurricane Irene. The fund had less than $400 million as of Tuesday.
“We continue to do everything we can to preserve our Disaster Relief Fund, so that we can continue to meet the immediate needs of disaster survivors, states and communities,” said FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen.
The Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said he saw no urgency in Tuesday’s vote, calling it “unnecessary.” He suggested the Senate should wait for the House to submit its new proposal.
Disaster relief has traditionally been provided by Congress on an as-needed basis, but deficit- conscious lawmakers this year sought to put the funding on a more predictable budget. GOP leaders also sought to pay for disaster relief with cuts elsewhere, a strategy Democrats have rejected.
The partisan gap has widened in recent days as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has said disaster money should be taken from accounts for foreign aid while a bipartisan coalition led by Democratic Rep. Pete Welch of Vermont, a state hard hit by Hurricane Irene, is urging Congress for help.
The GOP-led House approved $2.6 billion in disaster aid in June, plus another $1 billion for fiscal 2011, before Hurricane Irene tore up the Eastern Seaboard in one of the most costly disasters in recent history.
The president on Friday requested $5.1 billion for the rest of this year and next. House GOP leaders are preparing a new disaster aid budget as part of the stopgap spending measure for the upcoming 2012 fiscal year to be presented this week. Congress is readying the stopgap legislation because it has not yet passed all its funding bills but is seeking to avert a shutdown when the new year begins Oct. 1. The House could vote on that legislation next week.