WASHINGTON -- The Senate passed a stopgap funding bill Monday to keep the government running, ending a weeklong battle over disaster aid that has turned out to be moot.
Congress tied itself up in knots for a week arguing over emergency aid for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, only to have the agency announce that its funds may last until the end of the fiscal year, perhaps running dry for only a day or two.
Congressional leaders from both parties had agreed back in July to spend $1.043 trillion to keep the government running while the super committee works on plans to cut the deficit.
But that plan went off the tracks when mounting natural disasters stressed the FEMA budget, and rather than simply pass a White House request for $500 million in emergency spending, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) declared that something else would have to be cut first.
"Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, started this fight when he said we cannot fund the 2011 disasters without an offset," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) on the Senate floor Monday.
Then the offsets turned out to be a non-issue when FEMA announced it would not run out of money early this week, as expected. The agency shook up the debate on Monday when officials said current disaster relief funds could last until the end of the week, eliminating the need for emergency money. A FEMA official said the agency recouped about $40 million last weekend when funds were returned to the agency from completed projects.
Because FEMA can apparently stay afloat until the first day of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1, the House and Senate may be able to agree on a clean continuing resolution with no offsets or emergency aid funding. Leaders of the two houses had already agreed to an overall government spending figure last month. And now the Senate has passed a clean stopgap funding bill.
The Senate's other option, a continuing resolution that would fund the government and provide disaster money without offsets, failed in a 54-35 vote on Monday.
The bill's passage came down to 10 Republicans who supported a larger aid package for FEMA two weeks ago: Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.), Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), Dean Heller (Nev.), John Hoeven (N.D.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Pat Toomey (Pa.) and David Vitter (La.).
Of those, six ended up voting against the amended continuing resolution on Monday: Blunt, Heller, Hoeven, Rubio, Toomey and Vitter. The bill fell six votes short of the 60 it needed to move forward.
After the failed vote, the Senate moved to two votes to continue funding the government. First, the clean continuing resolution that would extend government funding until Nov. 18. Then, a vote on a one-week funding extension to prevent a government shutdown if the House delays in passing a longer-term bill. Both will be sent to the House if they pass the Senate.
"I think it is very clear that this is the right way to go," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the floor. "It shows us we don't need to focus on 2011 funding. … This compromise should satisfy Republicans because it includes the 2012 FEMA funding, and it should be a win for Democrats because it does not include offsets."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that FEMA's ability to keep running was "vindication" of the GOP position.
"Before we spend the taxpayer money, we should have a real accounting of what is actually needed," he said.
If House members agree to the Senate's amended bill, they could pass the bill by unanimous consent, which would allow most members not to return to Washington, D.C., noted Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) at a press conference on Friday. Aides said on Monday that a voice vote was still a possibility.
"I think if that's the bill that comes to the House, and I hope it will, it wouldn't even necessitate, in my view, calling the House back, we could pass it by unanimous consent," Hoyer said last week.
Jennifer Bendery contributed to the report.