Senate to vote, again, on bill to fund government, disaster aid

The Senate returns Monday for a late-afternoon vote on a stop-gap spending measure to fund government operations, including a compromise proposal on federal disaster assistance.

If the measure fails in either house, a government shutdown is possible by week’s end. And even if it passes, the compromise may be too late to stop federal disaster funds from running out after Tuesday.

This is the third time since Republicans took control of the House in January that lawmakers are staring at a possible government shutdown. But unlike the previous two cases – a dispute last spring over $100 billion in fiscal 2011 spending and a battle over the summer about adding $2.7 trillion to the national debt – this standoff almost ranks as a rounding error.

“Suddenly, a bill that nobody should notice becomes another crisis,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University.

At issue is $1.6 billion of disaster relief – a tiny sum in the grand scheme of federal spending – that both Republicans and Democrats agree is essential. The dispute is over when and how to pay for it.

To recap: A new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Congress has yet to pass a single spending bill for FY 2012. Unless Congress acts by Sept. 30, the government must shut down all but essential services. The Senate on Friday rejected a House measure to fund government through Nov. 18, by a bipartisan vote of 59 to 36.

Now, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada has called the Senate back from a scheduled recess for Monday's procedural vote on a nearly identical bill. The Senate alternative adopts the House figure of $3.65 billion for emergency disaster assistance – less than Senate Democrats had wanted – but unlike the House bill it does not require offsetting cuts in spending to pay for that aid. It would simply be added to the national debt.

Democrats say offsets for such emergency spending are nearly unprecedented. But that's not all that riles them. The House GOP's choice of offsets – two clean-energy programs conspicuously backed by President Obama – is also sticking in their craw.

This narrow dispute now threatens to undermine a stop-gap measure to fund all of government through Nov. 18. The House and Senate have already agreed on what is typically the toughest issue in any annual spending dispute – the bottom line. As part of the deal resolving the earlier debt-limit crisis, Congress agreed to $1.043 trillion in discretionary spending for fiscal 2012, and both House and Senate proposals adopted that bottom line.

So, why is Congress driving toward a fiscal cliff again? Historian Zelizer chalks it up to partisan advantage. Republicans get to insist that something be cut for any new spending. Democrats get to “draw some kind of a line with Republicans,” he says. “Each party is invested in this and it becomes hard to do routine decisions.”

Congress has seldom met its constitutional obligation to fund government on time for a new fiscal year. No Labels, a public-interest group that promotes bipartisanship, released a report Monday that shows Congress has missed its deadline for completing appropriations bills for all but two of the past 25 years.

“If Congress can’t do its sole constitutional duty, the system is broken,” said No Labels co-founder Mark McKinnon, in a statement. “Hyper-partisanship has real consequences, as we saw with the fallout from the debt-ceiling debacle and S&P’s subsequent downgrade of the US credit rating.”

Senate Republicans had urged Senator Reid to allow a vote last Friday on the alternative measure, but Reid said both sides needed a “cooling off period.” Should Monday’s vote fail, the Senate has the option to take up the House GOP bill again. If the Senate passes an alternative bill, the House would need to pass it – a time frame all but certain to leave the Federal Emergency Management Agency without funding after Tuesday.

“It’s embarrassing,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “Can we, once again, inflict on the country and the American people the spectacle of a near-government shutdown?” He blames “a small group within the House of the tea party crowd.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, responding on the same program, blamed the Senate majority leader. “He manufactured a crisis all week about disaster when there’s no crisis,” he said. “I don’t like this business of sitting around blaming each other over such small potatoes.”

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