More clashes in Congress over disaster aid bill

Congress’ latest must-pass bill is prompting a new House-Senate showdown, highlighting a partisan ri

Congress’ latest must-pass bill is prompting a new House-Senate showdown, highlighting a partisan rift so raw that an effort to help disaster victims has become mired in disputes over jobs, the national debt and the discredited Solyndra solar energy company.

The Republican-led House approved revamped legislation early today providing $3.7 billion to help people battered by Hurricane Irene, Texas wildfires, tornadoes and other natural disasters. The money would replenish an emergency fund that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned could be depleted early next week.

The measure would also prevent a federal shutdown next weekend by financing government agencies from the Oct. 1 start of the new federal fiscal year through Nov. 18. It was approved by a near party-line 219-203 vote shortly after midnight.

Leaders of the Democratic-run Senate promised to quickly kill the legislation, saying it lacked enough disaster assistance. Democrats also complained about cuts it would make to help pay for the aid: trimming $1.5 billion from Energy Department loans aimed at spurring development of fuel-efficient vehicles, a program they said is creating badly needed jobs.

“They insist on holding out on Americans who have suffered devastating losses,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said of GOP lawmakers. “Americans are tired of this partisanship. They deserve to know that when disasters strike, we will be there to help them.”

The Senate version, approved last week with the support of 10 GOP senators, provided $6.9 billion in disaster aid and no cuts to help pay for it.

White House spokesman Jay Carney faulted House Republicans for the deadlock today, saying they had passed legislation knowing it would die in the Senate, just as they had during last month’s fight over extending the federal debt limit.

“The fever hasn’t broken — the behavior that we saw this summer that really repelled Americans continues,” Carney said.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, blamed Democrats, saying the House-passed bill had enough money for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the short term and that Congress could provide more money later.

“The Senate Democratic leadership is essentially threatening to delay FEMA money that families need right now for a partisan gain,” said the spokesman, Michael Steel.

It was unclear how the standoff would be resolved. The House and Senate had both planned to take next week off, but neither seemed likely to risk accusations of ignoring the thousands of Americans victimized by natural calamities or of allowing the government to shut its doors.

“We’re establishing priorities,” said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif. “We have a priority, that being dealing with our fellow Americans.”

House passage represented a reversal from an embarrassing setback the chamber dealt its Republican leaders on Wednesday. On that day, the House rejected a nearly identical measure, shot down by Democrats complaining its disaster aid was too stingy and conservative Republicans upset that its overall spending was too extravagant.

The bill the House approved Friday morning contained just one change — an additional $100 million in savings from cutting a second Energy Department loan program, this one aimed at sparking new energy technologies.

That is the same program that financed a $528 million federal loan to Solyndra Inc., the California solar panel maker that won praise from President Barack Obama but has since gone bankrupt and laid off its 1,100 workers. The Obama administration had praised Solyndra as a model for green energy companies, but now Congress is investigating the circumstances under which the government approved the loan.

Forty-eight Republicans had voted against the bill on Wednesday, a number GOP leaders cut in half in Friday’s vote after hours of lobbying. One who switched from “no” to “yes” was conservative Rep. Jeff Landry, R-La., who said he was swayed by the new cuts in the technology loan program.

“This bill is like dessert,” the freshman said in an interview of the new measure. “Are you kidding? I came here to cut wasteful spending.”

The gridlock over the spending bill was the third time this year the two parties have clashed over legislation whose passage both sides considered crucial.

In April with just hours to spare, the two sides reached agreement on a bill that averted a federal shutdown and provided money for government agencies through September. Then this summer, they battled for weeks before finally approving legislation extending the government’s borrowing authority and narrowly preventing a historic federal default.

Against a backdrop of the 2012 presidential and congressional elections and angst over the country’s dismal job market, this year’s clashes have been intensified by the infusion of dozens of tea party Republicans who often show little inclination to compromise.

Wednesday’s defeat of the spending bill was only the most recent time they have made life difficult for Boehner. And it underscored the challenges ahead this fall as Congress tackles efforts to fix the economy, create jobs and try to control the $14 trillion national debt.

The money to finance agencies beginning Oct. 1 is needed because Congress has completed none of the 12 annual spending bills.

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