WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Tuesday took a step forward in moving a nearly $7 billion disaster aid bill through Congress, though the proposal could be dead on arrival in the House, where GOP leaders are pressing for an alternative approach that ties emergency aid to spending cuts.
In a 61-38 vote, the Senate cleared a procedural hurdle to begin debate on a bill that would rush $6.9 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Administration. The agency has responded to an unprecedented spate of natural disasters this year -- most recently, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee -- and is on track to run out of disaster relief funds by the end of the month. FEMA announced last month that, due to low funds, it has already stopped approving long-term reconstruction projects in order to prioritize its dwindling dollars on immediate emergency needs.
Eight Republicans sided with Democrats in voting to begin Senate debate on the disaster aid package: Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.), Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), Dean Heller (Nev.), Hoeven (N.D.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Pat Toomey (Pa.) and David Vitter (La.).
"These are very powerful 'yes' votes for tens of thousands of people waiting for us to say yes," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said after the vote. "We are sending a signal to local governments and mayors ... that help is on the way. The federal government is not going to ... turn its back on them in this time of need."
Brown said he sided with Democrats in taking up the bill, regardless of it not having offsets, because people around the country are struggling to rebuild their lives after all of this year's disasters.
"People have lost their homes, their livelihoods. They need our help," Brown told The Huffington Post. "I voted for that support, to give them that help."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) summed up what several other Republicans said was their reason for opposing the vote to begin debate on the bill: "It's not paid for."
The fact that the bill cleared the 60-vote threshold on the procedural vote essentially ensures it will pass the Senate. Its fate in the House is another story, however.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) won't say whether he would support an emergency disaster aid package without offsets. And on the Senate bill specifically, he has raised questions about how the Senate arrived at a $7 billion price tag.
"The initial estimates are nowhere near $7 billion for what we've just been through," Cantor told reporters at an American Action Forum event on Tuesday. "I have asked what are the details in the bill and I have also said that the president has not requested that amount of money."
Cantor said that nobody wants to hold up aid to people in need, but that he thinks disaster spending can be done in "in a responsible way."
"There's a process in place whereby the state's localities go through an assessment as to their potential obligations and need and whether their need exceeds the capacity," he said. "Once that determination is made at the local and state level, then the federal government comes in with FEMA and decides to make a recommendation whether to extend the assistance."
Last week, President Barack Obama sent a letter to Congress asking for $500 million in emergency aid for this fiscal year and another $4.6 billion in budgetary spending for fiscal year 2012. Of those funds, about $1.5 billion would cover the cost of Hurricane Irene damage. Lawmakers typically pass emergency spending requests without offsets since they are, by their nature, for emergencies. But this time around, House Republican leaders maintain they can come up with a way to pay for it.
Asked if he could support Obama's request for $500 million in emergency aid without requiring that it has offsets, Cantor replied, "We already passed $1 billion and there are offsets there."
Cantor was referring to $1 billion in disaster aid stuffed into a House-passed 2012 spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security. House Republicans maintain the Senate could simply take up that bill and pass it to expedite FEMA aid. But the bill reduces grants for clean-energy vehicles in order to offset the new disaster relief funds, which the Democrat-controlled Senate does not support. As such, that bill continues to languish in a Senate committee.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) ripped House Republicans for trying to pull money from the clean-energy car fund. He described a Las Vegas event he attended last month where domestic electric cars were on display.
"Fancy, new electric cars. Ford Motor Company had a car there. And they were there because of the money that the Republicans want to take from the Recovery bill and put into this. This is wrong," he said.
"It's interesting, my Republican colleagues never complained about all these wars going on, fully unpaid for," Reid said. "We're spending billions of dollars a week in Iraq and Afghanistan on borrowed money. Shouldn't we be spending some money, instead of Iraq and Afghanistan, to take care of the devastation here?"
For now, it remains to be seen how the two chambers will reach an agreement on a disaster aid deal. House Republicans are expected to bring forward a continuing resolution next week that includes some $1 billion for disaster aid, with offsets. A House Appropriations Committee aide said it still "hasn't been decided" where the offsets would come from, however.
In the meantime, a bipartisan group of 40 House lawmakers on Tuesday sent a letter to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) urging them to ensure that FEMA gets its funding in a timely manner, one way or another, with or without offsets. The 12 Republicans and 28 Democrats on the letter all have one thing in common: They've been impacted by Hurricane Irene.
"Early estimates put the cost of Irene in the billions," reads the letter. "While our constituents are working to get back on their feet, they cannot do it alone. Please provide funding that ensures the swift recovery of the families, farms, businesses in our districts."