Shutdown Showdown Redux? Congress Squabbles Over Disaster Relief Money

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., appear to be on a collision course that could once again threaten to shut down the federal government.

At issue is the amount of disaster relief funding Congress should enact to help hurricane, flood and tornado-ravaged communities.

The Senate last week passed a $7 billion FEMA relief bill. The bill was sent to the House of Representatives for passage but House Republicans have a different strategy for FEMA funding. They want to attaching FEMA funding to a stop-gap continuing resolution that would be used to fund the federal government through Nov. 18th. The House legislation provides a little more than half as much as the Senate bill. House Republicans would provide $3.65 billion for disaster recovery, including approximately $1 billion divided between FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make up shortages in the 2011 fiscaL year, and an additional $2.65 billion for the full 2012 fiscal year.

Senate Democrats say this is not enough money for FEMA and chastised House Republicans for calling for relief aid to be off-set with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget when they don’t require the same standard for funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So today, Reid announced that when the House of Representatives sends over its CR, which the House will vote on tomorrow, he will amend it to include the $7 billion relief aid which passed in the Senate.

“I was disappointed to see that the House shortchanged the Federal Emergency Management Agency, by failing to provide the funding to adequately help Americans whose lives have been devastated by floods, hurricanes and tornadoes,” Reid said on the Senate floor this morning. “Tomorrow, when the Senate receives the House bill to fund the government for six more weeks, we will amend it with the language of the Senate FEMA legislation.”

That means that in order for the government to avoid shutting down next Friday, Sept. 30th, when the fiscal year ends, the House would need to pass the amended measure, including Reid’s extra relief money. Members of Congress want to get this done by this Friday, as next week they have a scheduled recess for Rosh Hashanah.

But now, as both sides stand firm, the path forward is unclear.

“We are going to continue this. We are not going to back down. Remember, the government doesn’t shut down on Thursday or Friday. If they want to stay into next week, that’s fine; we can do that. Next week — we can work all next week,” Reid said today following the Democrats weekly policy luncheon. “I heard the reports that Senator McConnell said there will be no shutdown. I am not that sure. I’m not that sure, because the tea party-driven House of Representatives has been so unreasonable in the past, I don’t know why they should suddenly be reasonable.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was asked how he thought the disaster relief funding battle would play out with Reid as the House moves to consider its continuing resolution Wednesday.

“We are delivering on the disaster relief that has been requested. No one will go without their needs being addressed, and I think the House bill, at $1.043 [trillion] is what we agreed to,” he said.

Reid today noted that the original $7 billion Senate funding bill had 10 Republican votes – and that he expects the same out of those senators when faced with the funding now being tied to the continuing resolution.

“It would seem to me that it would send a very, very sad message to home that because of partisanship, they’re going to back off of what is needed,” Reid said, challenging the group of Republicans who voted for his bill to do the same when he ties it to the CR.

“I want to thank the 10 Republican senators that stood against their party politics and put their states first and their communities first,” Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-LA., said today. “And I ask them to stand strong for their communities again. We need them to not cave to party petty politics. We need them to stand up for their states.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters this morning that he was uncertain House Democrats could support the continuing resolution due to $1.5 trillion in cuts to new advanced technologies to offset the FEMA funding, and he suggested if Republicans moved a bill that includes those cuts, Republicans should expect to pass it without help from Democrats.

“We believe that the Republicans’ $1.5 billion cut in the advanced manufacturing technology initiative is counterproductive to growth in jobs and to the growth in the economy. We think they make a mistake,” Hoyer, D-Md., said. “My presumption is they will offer a CR which has that offset in it, and Democrats will be loath to support that effort because we think it is counterproductive.”

Cantor said it was clear “there is a game of politics being played here” by Congressional Democrats and emphasized that “the House is going to act” to pass its bill rather than face a showdown over a government shutdown.

“There’s no question that the money will be delivered. This is all about a political game for Harry Reid. I know Steny Hoyer understands that. Steny Hoyer also understands that we need to move on disaster relief and do so responsibly,” Cantor said. “No one is intending to bring about a government shutdown here. I think the country has sort of seen enough of that. The two sides have demonstrated a real difference as far as cutting spending is concerned. We’ve going to try and focus on where we can come together to pass a CR and to continue to focus on job creation, which is so desperately needed.”

Cantor was especially critical of Reid and blamed the Senate’s top Democrat for playing political games with the relief.

“It will be on Leader Reid’s shoulders because he’s the one playing politics with it. No one wants to stand in the way of disaster relief monies that are needed. There’s nothing else but politics going on with that move if that’s what happens,” Cantor said. “There’s nothing but politics involved if Harry Reid wants to go and play these games. We are delivering the monies that are needed. We are twice what is requested from the emergency standpoint and frontloading all of ’12 monies to the agencies to access right now.”

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, whose primary responsibility is counting votes, discounted the potential for Reid’s bill to pass in the House of Representatives.

“If Reid does what he does – I don’t see the votes on the [House] floor for it. So he’s holding up the ability for individuals to get the relief,” McCarthy, R-Calif., said. “They have it in the CR, it’ll pass out of here and go to the Senate. If Reid wants to play politics with it, I think that’s wrong and I think that’s shame on him.”

“Let’s not conflate the two issues here,” Cantor added. “There is an issue of emergency funding, which is the context for the pay-for discussion, and there is that which we budget for. The emergency funding is off-set and we did so responsibly. The budgeted for amounts is for the FY12 number frontloaded so the agency can access monies if it needs it.”

Today 68 House Democrats and one Republican sent a letter to the GOP leadership requesting an immediate up or down vote on the $6.9 billion emergency funding bill that passed last week in the Senate – but so far Cantor has rejected that option.

“The Senate legislation is comprehensive and fulfills the federal government’s obligations to small businesses, families and local governments affected by Irene, Lee and other natural disasters,” Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, said. “The House legislation falls well short and would require a complicated mess of additional bills and offsets that are a recipe for gridlock. We can’t afford to play politics with this critical issue.”