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Senate blocks emergency disaster money
Calling for a weekend to "cool off," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid set up a Monday vote on replenishing the almost-empty federal disaster relief accounts as all sides race to beat a deadline to keep money money flowing to disaster-stricken states and to keep the federal government at large running.
"Cool off a little bit. Work this through. There's a compromise here," Mr. Reid said Friday, minutes after the Senate blocked back a bill drafted by House Republicans that would have replenished the disaster fund accounts through Nov. 18.
Without an agreement, the government could shut down in a week, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency could run out of money even before then.
The House, on the strength of Republican votes, passed a bill early Friday morning that directs an additional $3.65 billion to FEMA, with some of the spending offset by cuts to a clean-energy program popular with Democrats and the Obama administration.
They pleaded with Mr. Reid to pass their bill, arguing it is the only version that can be signed into law before Monday, when FEMA money could run dry.
"Harry Reid is holding a bill up with full funding for what is needed right now for no reason — for no reason but for politics," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican. "This is why the people just don't have the respect for this institution and this town anymore."
But the Senate, led by Democrats and joined by some conservative Republicans, tabled that measure, 59-36.
Instead, Mr. Reid has called for a Monday vote on a new bill he wrote to accept the House-passed FEMA funding level, but to tack the additional spending onto the deficit rather than find cuts elsewhere.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republicans' leader in the chamber, tried to speed the vote up to Friday afternoon, but Mr. Reid objected, saying he wanted the cooling-off period.
Senate Democrats also have a major campaign event to raise money from high-dollar donors at the luxurious Kiawah Island in South Carolina this weekend.
Earlier this week Mr. Reid was adamant that FEMA's account was on the brink.
"The agency that rushes to help when disaster strikes will run out of money on Monday. I repeat, Monday," he said Wednesday as he was pushing for quick action.
But by Friday he said he had been assured there was more time.
Still, the Senate's delay could be costly.
Even as senators were fighting over when to hold their next vote, the House finished business and left town, and with only abbreviated sessions scheduled for next week it limits chances for a compromise.
The disaster money fight is tied to a broader bill that would keep the government open into fiscal year 2012, which begins Oct. 1. Congress has not passed any of the dozen spending bills required to fund basic operations, and without a stop-gap bill much of the government would shut down after Sept. 30.
Both sides agreed to an overall 2012 funding number in last month's debt deal, but the disaster money threatens to undercut the deficit limit they settled on.
Democrats said emergency disaster money has always been tacked onto the deficit.
"That is not right. That's what this debate is about," said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat.
Democrats also objected to the specific clean-energy budget cuts House Republicans called for.
But Republicans said the deficit is so bad that it's time to change the usual practice.
"The American people won't accept that excuse any longer," Mr. McConnell said.
Earlier in the day, standing with House GOP leaders, two freshmen Republicans from Pennsylvania, where floods have ousted people from their homes, pleaded for Mr. Reid to take up the House bill. They said at this point in the schedule it's the only way to make sure FEMA continues to have money through next week.
"They can't wait five days," Rep. Lou Barletta said of his constituents. "We need help and we need it now."
Mr. Barletta voted against the first version of the spending bill on Wednesday, arguing it had too little disaster money. But he voted for the version that passed early Friday, and he told reporters his leaders had assured him enough money would be allocated.
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