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.
Mr. Obama said the debate is likely to depend on whether Republicans get pushback from constituents at home for their stand.
House Republicans at times have tried to argue that they aren't breaking new ground.
They circulated a list of 15 emergency spending bills over the past decade or so that have had offsets included — though many of those were war-spending measures or other types of emergencies, not natural disasters.
Those that did include disaster money did not make the explicit trade-off between the extra funding and cuts elsewhere.
Earlier this month, Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, proposed offsetting the disaster money by cutting duplicative programs identified by Congress' investigate arm, the Government Accountability Office, in a report issued this year. A few months ago, a similar amendment, co-sponsored with Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat, garnered 64 votes.
This time, it got 54 votes — six shy of the 60 needed for passage — and nearly a dozen Democrats who voted for it last time voted against it this time, including Mr. Warner.
Mr. Warner's spokesman said the dollar amount was higher this time and that he didn't want to entangle disaster money in a political fight over offsets.
Democrats could have offered their own offsets, such as some of the targeted tax increases President Obama proposed this month in his jobs-stimulus package. But they chose not to.
The fight has become personal at times. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat and chairwoman of the spending subcommittee that oversees FEMA funding, called out Republican lawmakers who have asked for clean-energy funding in the past, but who now back cutting funding to pay for the disaster money.
Ms. Landrieu warned that she will hold them to their own standard.
"I'm just saying I am not going to forget this vote because I chair this committee," Ms. Landrieu said. "And if you vote to require an offset and another storm hits your state, then it is going to be the responsibility on your shoulders to tell your people, 'I'm sorry I can't help you until I go to Washington and find an offset.' "
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