WASHINGTON – Talk of a federal government shutdown is escalating as Congress appears unable to resolve a dispute over federal disaster aid, with Republicans insisting that assistance be paid for with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.
Days remain for Congress to end the stalemate or risk shutting down the federal government. The disaster aid is included in a broader bill to fund the government for the first weeks of the 2012 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
“Nobody’s intending to bring about a government shutdown,” said Republican Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader. “The country’s sort of seen enough of that.”
The GOP-led House expects to vote today on the government funding bill, but it is unclear if the legislation will have enough votes to pass.
Democrats have rejected the Republican approach of paying for the supplemental disaster aid with spending cuts, saying it is an unprecedented way of providing emergency assistance. Disaster aid has traditionally been a bipartisan issue, as lawmakers from both parties have historically agreed to provide emergency funds for disaster victims.
House Republican leaders are likely to need Democratic votes to pass the government funding bill because of dissatisfaction from conservatives with the legislation – the right flank wants deeper cuts across the government.
If the bill clears the House, the Senate will try to amend the legislation with its own disaster aid package, setting the legislation on a ping-pong course between the two chambers. Senate Republicans helped Democrats approve a larger aid package last week, but it is unclear if they will do so again as part of the broader bill.
Congress hopes to resolve the issue by Friday, as the House and Senate are scheduled to be on recess next week for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana, putting pressure on lawmakers to resolve the standoff.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, said he was “not that sure” the impasse could be broken by then. Democrats, he said, were prepared to work into next week, if necessary.
“We can work all next week,” Reid said. Democrats are particularly opposed to the GOP proposal to tap a federal loan program for companies that manufacture alternative-energy vehicle technologies to pay for the disaster aid.
“Why in the world would we zero in on a program making jobs in America?” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
After a series of natural disasters this year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is about to run out of funds.
Already, FEMA has begun prioritizing aid, spending its remaining resources on immediate assistance to provide food, shelter and debris removal in the wake of Hurricane Irene. Longer-term rebuilding projects are on hold in communities hit by earlier disasters.