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Congress makes no progress on keeping government afloat

The federal disaster fund could run dry as early as Tuesday, but lawmakers showed no sign of compromise as another partisan showdown on the budget set the stage for a possible government shutdown later this week.

Democratic and Republican leaders were not scheduled to talk Sunday about a measure to replenish the fund, which is used to aid victims and reimburse states hit by floods and other natural disasters, and to keep the government running past Friday, the end of the fiscal year.

The disaster aid is part of a broader bill to temporarily fund the government once the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

The Senate is scheduled to vote Monday on a Democratic-sponsored measure to provide $3.65 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the disaster fund. But the bill is expected to fail because it does not include spending cuts demanded by Republicans.

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Lawmakers expressed hope Sunday that they could reach a bipartisan agreement rather than face a repeat of the rancorous summer battle over raising the nation’s debt ceiling. But negotiations are likely to continue until the 11th hour.

Ratcheting up pressure for a deal, governors from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, states hit hard by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, called on Congress to move swiftly to provide disaster aid they say is crucial to rebuild damaged infrastructure and communities.

The fight over what traditionally has been a routine matter — keeping the government running and aiding disaster victims — is raising doubts about the ability of a divided Congress to resolve far thornier issues, including reducing the national debt and strengthening the economy.

“This latest crisis makes it painfully obvious that the next battles — a jobs bill and further deficit reduction — will be even more challenging,” said Greg Valliere, a political analyst with the Potomac Research Group, an independent firm that provides policy analysis to institutional investors.

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The fight, he added, is further eroding “what little confidence the public — and the [stock] markets — have in Washington.”

Neither side showed signs of budging.

White House senior advisor David Plouffe criticized Republicans for demanding a $1.5-billion cut in spending on green vehicle technology as a price for continuing to fund the government and replenishing disaster relief coffers.

“What we ought not to do is play politics with those who have been affected by disasters,” Plouffe said on “Fox News Sunday.” He noted that the green car program is a job creator backed by the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) called the latest standoff “embarrassing” and tangled with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on CNN’s “State of the Union” over who was responsible.

Warner blamed “the ‘tea party’ crowd” in the Republican-controlled House, and Alexander accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) of manufacturing a crisis.

“We’re going to help people who have been affected by disasters,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on “Fox News Sunday.” “But we’re going to start cutting the government in other places where the money is not so important.”

Other lawmakers pressed their case directly with their constituents.

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“I understand that Congress must fund the federal government and I do not support shutting it down,” Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) wrote in an email to his district. But he promised to “stand strong in my pledge to fight wasteful spending and to get our fiscal house back in order.”

Brian Darling, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, expects a last-minute deal to avert a government shutdown. But he said the fight showed there was “no common ground between warring parties in Congress.”

Republicans are trying to cut spending to keep the promises that helped them gain seats in the 2010 election, he said, while Democrats are trying to blame Republicans for a “do nothing” Congress and a dismal economy before the 2012 election.

richard.simon@latimes.com


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