A key reason Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) delayed a vote on legislation to fund the government and re-up FEMA’s disaster relief account until Monday is that, as of last week, FEMA was set to run out of funds late Monday or Tuesday. Schedule a vote so close to the deadline, and it focuses peoples’ minds (Republicans, specifically) on just how reckless their political tactics are.
But it turns out FEMA’s got a bit more money than expected, and may be able to hold out until Thursday or Friday, according to a Department of Homeland Security aide. And that changes both the policy urgency of the ongoing government shutdown fight, and legislative politics more broadly on Capitol Hill.
As of today, FEMA has $114 million in its disaster relief account. Divide that by the agency’s daily burn rate, and it looks like FEMA will be in the black until Thursday.
But, according to the aide, that doesn’t account for surprises — a new, unexpected disaster, for example, or an uptick of people registering for individual FEMA aid. To blunt those risks, the agency’s also taking steps to pad its account, by reclaiming unused funds for disaster projects that wrap up under-budget, and potentially by performing a bit of budgetary triage to stretch the funds out as long as possible.
And if the impasse isn’t broken soon, the stakes remain very high. “If Congress does allow the balance of the Disaster Relief Fund to reach zero, there are laws that govern federal agency operations in the absence of funding,” said FEMA spokesperson Rachel Racusen. “Under law, FEMA would be forced to temporarily shut down disaster recovery and assistance operations, including financial assistance to individuals until Congress appropriated more funds. This would include all past and current FEMA recovery operations.”
But for Reid, the brief reprieve changes things a bit. Monday’s vote is expected to fail. Before this most recent development Democrats were going to have to decide among themselves whether to hold firm to the principle that disaster aid should not be held hostage by either party to force budget cuts — risking a lapse in FEMA’s disaster funding, and, on Friday at midnight, a government shutdown — or to cave.
Now that FEMA’s got a bit more time, so too does Reid — to build political pressure on Republicans to come back to the negotiating table and deal in good faith, and to make it clear that Republican intransigence could lead not just to a lapse in FEMA funds, but to the halting of nearly all government services. And if FEMA can make things last through the end of the week (which is also the end of the fiscal year) the whole debate changes because the GOP’s legislation offset money that won’t have to be spent anyhow. House Republicans skipped town on Friday, flipping the bird to Democrats whom, they reasoned, would be forced to pass their spending bill wholesale. It includes a partisan cut to a successful vehicle manufacturing program meant to offset part of the cost of disaster aid — and Democrats are furious about it.
But the GOP calculation doesn’t look so solid anymore. If Democrats hold firm, as they insist they will, it will touch off a spin war in the media over who’s at fault. The Democrats have the better of the argument. But if Republicans are out of town, there’s only one party in D.C. with ready made access the national bully pulpit.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.