The Senate was in a holding pattern on Monday ahead of an evening procedural vote lawmakers hope helps avoid a government shutdown and refills a depleted disaster-aid fund. But Democrats say new estimates from the Federal Emergency Management Agency make last week's impasse over offsets moot.
Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairwoman Mary Landrieu, D-La., and multiple Democratic Senate aides, said FEMA may have enough money to last beyond the beginning of the new fiscal year, which starts Saturday. A bicameral continuing resolution must pass by then to avoid a shutdown of the federal government.
House Republicans, insistent on offsetting additional 2011 disaster funding, passed a continuing resolution early Friday morning doing just that, which Senate Democrats find unpalatable. But if the disaster-aid fund at the heart of the struggle doesn't run dry before Saturday, the stalemate should be broken, Democratic aides argued Monday afternoon.
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This summer’s Budget Control Act, which navigated Congress out of the debt-ceiling crisis, accounts for 2012 disaster funding. Therefore, no 2011 offsets are necessary and Republicans should accept the continuing resolution the Senate is set to vote on this evening, Democrats say. “The obvious thing to do is just pass the agreed-upon [fiscal year 2012] funding since the offsets for [fiscal year 2011] become a moot point,” a Democratic aide said.
But Republicans have yet to accept this argument.
Senate Democrats need seven Republicans to join them to win the 60 votes needed to advance a continuing resolution offered on Friday by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., after the chamber defeated the House-passed measure. Reid’s bill funds the government through Nov. 18 and contains $3.65 billion for FEMA. It does not include the House’s provision cutting clean-energy programs, which the Congressional Budget Office scores as saving $1.1 billion.
Senate Republicans are confident they will defeat Reid’s bill. If the measure advances, it cannot immediately take effect, as the recessed House still must approve it. The House was in pro forma session on Monday. The Senate vote, however, has symbolic importance as both sides grapple for political leverage to dictate how the spat ends.
Congress has three basic options, regardless of the cloture vote: Senate passage of the House’s continuing resolution; a compromise that requires the House to return and vote this week; and a government shutdown.
Republicans hope defeat of Reid’s bill pushes Democrats to accept the House version. In that event, a vote on the House-passed bill could come as soon as Monday night because Senate Republicans would likely consent to expedited action.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said on Monday that Senate Democrats must pass the House bill or cause a shutdown. Hoping to strengthen their position, GOP aides downplayed odds of the House returning.
Alternatively, Democrats can either move on Reid’s bill or push a pared-down alternative. House GOP leaders might then face pressure to return, perhaps on Thursday, Democratic leadership aides said. The aides argued Republicans, rather than Congress generally, will face a mounting share of public blame in coming days, forcing a compromise.
Democrats hope for a deal by Wednesday, ahead of the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
Aides in both parties downplayed odds of a shutdown. But the clock is ticking. And the risk rises if both sides believe that the public will blame the other party for an impasse.
Democrats argue that the GOP, and in particular House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., erred in taking a hard line in offsetting disaster-aid funding. They say Republicans have been maneuvered into defending a position that casts them as indifferent to disaster victims.
Republicans noted the House has passed a CR with disaster-aid money, leaving Reid the choice of passing it or accepting blame. They claimed Reid previously signed off on a similar measure.
Staff-level discussions between Reid’s and Boehner’s offices continued from the weekend but have achieved little, congressional aides said. Both sides expect the status quo until the vote.
“We have to wait and see what Reid comes up with afterward,” said a GOP leadership aide.
Rank-and-file members in both parties, meanwhile, blasted the impasse.
“The gridlock and partisanship in Washington right now is disgusting,” Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., said in a statement on Monday. Brown said he will vote with Democrats to advance Reid’s bill.
This article appears in the September 26, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.