Republican and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill were supposed to spend the weekend breaking an impasse over emergency disaster assistance that threatens not just to cripple FEMA but also to shut down the entire government.
According to a top congressional source, they’ve gotten nowhere, with both parties unwilling to cave. But one eventually must.
To recap, FEMA’s disaster account is set to run dry as early as Monday evening. Separately, the government will shut down at the end of the week if funding for federal agencies is not extended. On Friday, after weeks of denying they would hold disaster aid hostage to partisan budget cuts, House Republicans passed legislation that ties funding the government to FEMA funds and cuts to manufacturing programs and then skipped town, leaving Senate Democrats a take-it or leave-it proposition.
Senate Democrats are leaving it. But unlike in past showdowns, when Dems have allowed Republicans to set the terms of the debate, and have largely given in to their demands, there’s reason to believe things are different this time around.
It’s not just that Democrats are tired of being kicked around, although that’s part of it. Democrats reject in principle the notion of tying disaster assistance to a partisan budget process — particularly when Republicans won’t even consider raising a penny of new revenue and demand that everything be offset with semi-arbitrary cuts. They specifically reject the offsets House Republicans settled on, particularly one that would nix a successful loan program to encourage production of hybrid vehicles. And they believe that the GOP’s demand represents a violation of the agreement the parties reached during the debt limit fight.
That agreement set discretionary spending levels for the coming fiscal year at $1.043 trillion. Republicans are thus far respecting that part of the deal. But it also left Congress with some breathing room in the event of a disaster — $11 billion in spending over the cap in the event of emergencies.
Well, there are plenty of those, and Republicans are well aware of it. Nearly a dozen of them joined Senate Democrats in passing stand-alone legislation to top off FEMA’s account without any offsets almost two weeks ago. Now they’re lining up in support of the proposition that FEMA can only be refueled if Democrats swallow unpalatable budget cuts.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has scheduled a vote for 5:30 p.m. tonight on legislation that mirrors the House spending bill, minus the disaster aid offset. If it fails as Republicans have signaled it will, then FEMA will have to freeze its operations, and we’ll be well on our way to a government shutdown.
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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.