Shutdown averted; disaster aid dispute surmounted

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration gave Congress a possible way out of its shutdown-threatening budget impasse Monday, saying it had enough disaster relief money to last through Friday.

That word allowed the Senate to vote for a straightforward short-term spending plan allowing the government to operate at least until next week — but without $1billion in additional disaster aid.

The Disaster Relief Fund was the only issue holding up agreement between the House and Senate as they approached the end of the fiscal year Friday, when the government's spending authority runs out.

The Republican House had passed a plan to pay for additional disaster spending partly by cutting manufacturing and energy programs dear to the Obama administration.

Democrats wanted to add the additional disaster funding off-budget, the standard practice. The Senate fell six votes short of the 60 needed to pass that plan Monday.

And so the Senate agreed to a one-week extension of spending authority — with no additional funding but also no cuts to the manufacturing and energy programs — to give the House time to return to Washington to approve a budget and avoid a government shutdown.

"We've basically resolved this issue," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced Monday night. "We no longer have to fight over (fiscal year) 2011 funding." But he noted the same issues would come up in future budget talks.

The compromise leaves the Federal Emergency Management Agency running on what the Obama administration had called "dangerously low" funding levels.

After a record 84 presidential disaster declarations this year, the agency had $114 million in the Disaster Relief Fund as of Monday — and had originally expected to run out of money as soon as today.

FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said new estimates showed funding "could be fully exhausted by the end of the week."

The agency has already frozen assistance for older disaster recovery efforts, such as those in tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo., in favor of immediate needs like East Coast communities cleaning up after Hurricane Irene.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., took to the Senate floor repeatedly Monday to excoriate House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., for what she called "The Cantor Doctrine" — that the federal government couldn't help disaster victims unless Congress could cut something else first.

Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring said the Senate's decision to put corporate subsidies ahead of disaster aid left the House with "very few options."