FEMA stretched numbers to avert funding crisis

WASHINGTON -- In April, lawmakers staved off a government shutdown through 11th-hour dealmaking. This week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency saved the day with spreadsheets.

The only obstacle to reaching a deal on a short-term spending bill to keep the government open past Friday was a disagreement about how to replenish FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund. After Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, the fund had been reduced to what the White House called "dangerously low" levels — and scheduled to run out of funds as early as last week.

House Republicans wanted to give FEMA $1 billion more to get it through the end of the fiscal year, which ends Friday, but cut from other programs to pay for it. Senate Democrats wanted even more money, but without an "offset."

FEMA headed off the crisis by stretching its current funding to the end of the fiscal year. First, it froze funding for projects that weren't immediate needs in active disaster zones. Then it stepped up its usual efforts to recoup unneeded money from previous disasters.

FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said FEMA "undertook an aggressive effort to recover any possible funds from completed recovery projects" after Irene. This month, FEMA has grabbed back $180 million, allowing it to stretch its funding by five more days.

A lower-than-expected number of new disaster applications last weekend also helped, she said.

With $175 million in the bank Tuesday, the Office of Management and Budget estimated the fund would end the year with a "cash flow balance of less than a day's operating expenses."

That margin allowed the Senate to vote 79-12 Monday night on a compromise bill that funds the government through Nov. 18 — but punts on the issue of additional disaster funding.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called the episode an unnecessary "fire drill."

"Before we spend the taxpayers money, we should have a real accounting — a real accounting — of what's actually needed," he said.

The Senate also approved a "bridge measure" to fund the government through next Tuesday. That's because House members are home in their districts this week. But the House can take up the bridge measure Thursday, when as few as two members could show up at a skeleton session to pass it if no one objects, said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

The $2.65 billion in disaster assistance in the 2012 budget should carry FEMA for at least six weeks, allowing it to continue projects halted because of the cash crunch, Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew told Congress on Monday.

He urged Congress to provide "stable and robust" funding for FEMA next year to avoid a repeat of this week's drama.

Meteorologists at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration also played a small role in averting a shutdown.

Lew told Congress, "It appears that weather systems forming off our shores will not significantly affect the United States."

What if there is another disaster this week?

"There are a number of factors beyond our control, including any new and unforeseen disasters," said Racusen, that could impact the remaining balance of the Disaster Relief Fund.

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