Senate Democrats oppose a House Republican plan to take money from clean-energy loan guarantee programs to pay for disaster relief as part of a short-term spending bill. But on two occasions, Democrats themselves initiated and pushed through Congress plans to divert large amounts of money from the renewable-energy loan guarantee program now at the center of the Solyndra saga.
In the summer of 2009, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev., pushed through the chamber a measure that dipped into the Energy Department program, taking $2 billion to pay for extending the administration’s successful “cash for clunkers” program. The following summer, Reid again persuaded Senate Democrats to agree to take another $1.5 billion from the program to finance state aid for teachers.
The Democratic initiatives combined cut the renewable-energy loan guarantee program by more than half, slicing the $6 billion initiative to $2.5 billion.
Democrats weren’t thrilled with Reid either time he dipped into the clean-energy program’s coffers, but lawmakers kept their frustrations in check. Now Democrats are standing firm against GOP efforts to pay for disaster relief by using $1.5 billion from a similar DOE program that provides loan guarantees to clean, advanced vehicle technologies and a relatively small slice—$100 million—from the program that gave Solyndra its loan guarantee.
On Monday, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel chided Democrats. “Washington Democrats didn’t mind diverting energy money to ‘cash for clunkers,’ but they won’t use the money for disaster relief.”
Reid’s office says that Democrats object to using any existing program to pay for federal disaster aid, which has not historically been subject to any kind of congressional quid pro quo. “The point is, we shouldn’t have to set the precedent that we need to cut jobs in order to pay for disaster aid,” Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said. “When disaster strikes we should be able to get the relief to them as soon as possible without entering into a political debate.”
The stalemate surrounds House Republicans’ attempt to take $1.5 billion from the Energy Department’s clean-auto loan guarantee program and use it to fund the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which will run out of money this week if Congress doesn’t provide more money. The entire government will shut down if Congress doesn’t pass a short-term continuing resolution by midnight Friday.
The Energy Department's loan guarantee program for advanced vehicle technologies was appropriated $7.5 billion in September 2008 and has about $4 billion remaining.
Democrats and powerful interest groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, are fighting for the program. The chamber wrote Congress last week urging Washington not to cut funding. And House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, failed to get the necessary votes to pass a spending bill last Wednesday in part because of some opposition within his own party to cuts in the auto loan program.
Boehner then moved to trim $100 million from the Energy Department's renewable-energy program—the one that issued a loan guarantee to Solyndra, the failed California start-up that is now the subject of an FBI probe. The program, which was created under President Obama's stimulus in 2009, ends on Friday anyway.
The political landscape has shifted since Reid took money from the renewable-energy program in 2009 and 2010, namely because of the growing clout of tea party-backed conservatives in Congress who want to see the government stop funding clean energy altogether.
“Both choices [to divert Energy Department programs to fund FEMA] are emblematic of key ideological differences between the two parties playing to their ‘bases’ ahead of the 2012 elections,” notes an analysis by consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners, released on Monday. “These are the sorts of programs that unions and environmentalists will call on Democrats to protect and tea party conservatives will call on Republicans to eliminate.”
This article appears in the September 26, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.