The threat of a government shutdown, and the possibility that FEMA will run out of money this week, will both be averted, thanks to some clever accounting and the GOP’s lack of will to keep holding disaster relief funds hostage to budget cuts.
On the Senate floor late Monday, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced an agreement by which the Senate (and presumably the House) can dispense with all the sturm und drang about offsetting disaster aid and pass legislation that will keep the entire government — including FEMA — open after September.
The measure passed 79-12.
What ultimately broke the impasse was FEMA’s announcement Monday that it won’t run out of funds early this week — a presumption House Republicans had hoped would force Senate Democrats to accept a partisan budget cut, on the threat that disaster victims would otherwise be deprived of assistance for days or even weeks.
Indeed, according to a Senate Democratic aide, FEMA has assured Congress that they will be flush through the end of the fiscal year on Friday night — no need, in other words, for a supplemental funding bill.
When the need for emergency funds disappeared, though, so did the GOP’s leverage and at the last minute Reid introduced a compromise: Clean legislation to fund the government — including more money for FEMA, no offsets.
FEMA will not have to cease its emergency operations this week. Its disaster refund fund will be replenished at the end of the week when the new fiscal year starts, and the rest of the government will continue to operate without a shutdown.
The development represents a setback for Republicans who have been demanding that disaster relief funds be financed with cuts to programs Democrats support. Though the issue never fully came to a head, Republicans could have dragged the fight out longer. They had demanded that $1 billion worth of supplemental FEMA funds be offset by nixing a program to promote the production of hybrid vehicles. That $1 billion turned out not to be necessary — FEMA didn’t need them. But under the terms of the deal, FEMA will still be given over $2 billion in disaster relief funds for the start of fiscal year 2012 — with no offsets. This maintains the spirit of the August debt limit deal, which included allowances for over $10 billion in non-offset emergency funding every year, but it suggests that Republicans didn’t ultimately want to take their demand to its logical conclusion and keep pushing for offsets.
“I want to thank leader Reid and leader Schumer for helping the Democratic party find the backbone it needed to fight and win,” Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) said at a press conference after the vote.
“I said it would be clumsy, and, it turns out it was clumsy,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) told reporters off the Senate floor after the vote.
Under the terms of the agreement, the Senate nixed all of the plans at the center of last week’s government shutdown fight. In its place, it passed legislation to fund the government through mid-November, setting up the possibility of yet more bickering and brinkmanship about the budget in six weeks.
“There’s one thing I’ll predict with certainty,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) joked to reporters after the vote, “there’s a chance there’ll be another fight.
“I would have to say if they want to go through this again, they are really looking for some more losses,” Reid said at a press conference after the vote. “I don’t think this has been a very happy week for my friends in the House.”
The Senate also passed a one-week stop-gap measure to buy House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) some time, in case he needs to call the House back into session and provide time to debate the six week bill.
This story has been updated.
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.