- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 25, 2011

Jim Bunning may be out of the Senate, but the fire he lit 18 months ago when he held up the entire chamber — objecting to an extension of unemployment benefits unless the costs were matched with cuts elsewhere — still smolders.

Mr. Bunning, a former big league pitcher who retired from the Senate last year, lost his February 2010 fight to offset the unemployment money and angered even many of his GOP colleagues at the time. But as months passed, his fellow Republicans warmed to his crusade and have since carried his banner, establishing precedents for offsetting physicians’ Medicare payments, raising the debt ceiling and other spending proposals.

Their winning streak is on the line again this week as the GOP insists that emergency spending on disaster relief be offset by cuts elsewhere — and Democrats ferociously fight a rear-guard action, arguing that some things must trump trying to balance the budget.

“A lesson we can draw from the debates we’ve been having here over the last six months is that the American people won’t accept that excuse any longer,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “The whole ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ argument is the reason we’ve got a $14 trillion debt right now.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has set up a test vote Monday evening on a bill that gives House Republicans everything they requested — their 2012 spending limit and their emergency disaster number — but tacks $1 billion of the immediate money onto the 2011 deficit, rather than offsetting it.

Asked at a Friday news conference whether there was a scenario in which they could accept offsets, Mr. Reid answered flatly: “No.”

All sides agree that President Obama requested too little disaster money, and with a spate of emergencies such as the Missouri tornado and Mississippi River flooding earlier this year and the late-summer hurricane and earthquake, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster fund is about to run dry.

Republicans and Democrats want to replenish the fund, but they disagree on the amount of money. Complicating matters is that the disaster funding is tied to a broader stopgap measure to keep the government open into next month.

Current funding runs out Sept. 30, which is the end of the government’s fiscal year 2011, and Congress has not passed a single one of the dozen spending bills for 2012.

After an initial defeat, House Republicans powered through a bill early Friday that funds the government through Nov. 18 and includes $3.65 billion in disaster funding, with $1 billion of that credited to 2011 accounts to give an immediate boost to FEMA. To pay for that near-term funding, House Republicans cut $1.5 billion from a clean-energy vehicle technology program.

The Senate on Friday tabled that bill on a bipartisan 59-36 vote, and Mr. Reid then introduced a test proposal, which accepts the Nov. 18 funding date and even adopts the House’s $3.65 billion disaster level — which is half of what Senate Democrats say is needed.

Democrats drew the line at including offsets. They argued that the push for offsets is hypocritical and pointed to the myriad programs Republicans passed under President George W. Bush that were added to the deficit rather than offset: a huge new entitlement in the Medicare prescription drug bill, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and several tax cuts.

President Obama’s health care initiative includes tax increases and spending cuts over the next decade that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, more than compensate for the expanded spending under the law.

On Sunday, Mr. Obama sided with congressional Democrats in the emergency offset fight and accused the GOP of trying to establish new rules.

“What makes it worse is that some of the Republicans who are opposing this disaster relief it’s their constituents who’ve been hit harder than anyone by these natural disasters,” Mr. Obama told a small group of donors at a fundraiser in Seattle.

Story Continues →