- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 15, 2011

In a flurry of bipartisan cooperation late Thursday, the Senate cleared a $7 billion bill to boost federal disaster funding and measures to keep the Federal Aviation Administration and federal highway spending going for the rest of this year, as lawmakers brushed aside conservatives’ concerns over the deficit.

The FAA and highway programs were extended at current funding levels after senators rejected amendments to cut their funding. The Senate also turned back an effort to offset the additional disaster money by eliminating $7 billion in duplicative government programs — both steps Republicans had fought for.

“Today shows that the pendulum is swinging back,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, told reporters as he and fellow Democratic leaders touted the votes and said it signifies the re-emergence of a bipartisan consensus in favor of infrastructure and basic government functions.

The disaster-aid bill passed 62-37, while the bill combining the highway and FAA measures passed 92-6.

Both Democrats and Republicans seemed to lack the stomach for the kinds of fights that have dominated much of this year, which nearly brought the government to a shutdown and a potential debt default, and did leave thousands of FAA workers and contractors furloughed early last month when the House and Senate stalemated over extending the program’s authorization.

The FAA and highway bill had already passed the House and now heads to President Obama for his signature.

But the disaster-aid vote remains contentious, and at stake is the fundamental principle of whether all new spending must be offset or not.

House Republicans are working on a less-expensive bill, at $3.65 billion, that includes $1 billion in offsets, and have attached it to an omnibus bill to extend all government funding past Sept. 30, which is when the current fiscal year ends.

With much of the country touched by hurricane, tornado, wildfire or earthquake damage, the government’s main disaster-relief spending account is nearly empty. All sides agree the government has an obligation to pony up, but they disagree on whether it should be paid for by cuts elsewhere, or simply tacked onto the deficit, which is approaching $1.3 trillion.

So far, Congress has not passed any of the 12 individual spending bills required to keep the government running in fiscal 2012, and the catchall bill, known as a “continuing resolution,” is designed to bridge the gap.

The overall funding level for fiscal 2012 spending was set in last month’s debt deal, and amounts to a $7 billion reduction from 2011 levels.

Some House Republicans, though, still want to go deeper, arguing that spending should be cut to the levels the House adopted in its budget earlier this year.

“What kind of a message does it send to taxpayers when the House actually increases spending as a result of the debt deal?” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, who organized a letter signed by more than 50 of his colleagues protesting the higher spending level. “The spending limits established in the debt deal were meant to be a ceiling, not a floor.”

Top Republican leaders, though, have urged colleagues to abide by the level in the debt deal, and said they will not allow a government shutdown to happen on their watch.

Republican leaders will likely need most House Republicans’ support after Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, signaled Thursday that it’s unlikely many Democrats will back the legislation.

Democrats object to the lower level of disaster funding in the bill, which Republicans set at about half the Senate’s level. They also balked at the offsets, which would cut from a clean-energy vehicle technology loan program.

The House GOP said the $1 billion in cuts would offset the emergency money slated to be spent in 2011, and said the additional $2.65 billion for 2012 can be culled from other parts of future spending.

The issue of offsets also divided the Senate on Thursday.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, offered an amendment that would have directed the administration to find $7 billion in savings from duplicative government programs, and use that money to offset the $7 billion in additional disaster money.

The amendment was similar to one that he and Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat, offered in April to find $5 billion, and which garnered 64 votes.

But Thursday’s amendment achieved only 54 votes, which was six shy of the 60 needed for adoption. Eleven Democrats who voted for it last time voted against it this week, including Mr. Warner.

Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Mr. Warner, said Thursday’s amendment was both a higher dollar amount and the wrong statement to make on disaster relief.

“Today’s amendment not only increased that amount by 40 percent — it appeared designed to make a political statement that actually threatened passage of disaster-recovery resources needed by many families in Virginia and across the country right now,” Mr. Hall said.

Indeed, the question of offsetting disaster money was the crux of the issue.

Democrats said disaster relief has historically been added to spending, adding that this year is not the time to break that practice.

“We don’t hold people accountable to other programs because of acts of God, natural disasters that arise suddenly, and the nation has always been rich enough and responsible enough to guarantee we provide assistance to communities that have been hard hit,” said Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat.

Republican backers, though, said the government’s fiscal stance demands new thinking.

“Borrowing $7 billion when the Government Accountability Office has identified as much as $200 billion in annual waste and duplication is unconscionable,” Mr. Coburn said. “There is no reason why we need to exacerbate our economic crisis as we address natural disasters.”