09/20/2011 07:11 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2011

Government Shutdown Risked In Fight Over Disaster Aid

WASHINGTON -- Congressional leaders are gambling with the prospect of a government shutdown next week as they wait to see who will blink first in a fight over billions of dollars in emergency disaster aid.

With government funding set to expire on Sept. 30, House Republican leaders are moving forward Wednesday with a continuing resolution to keep the government funded through mid-November. While nobody opposes that effort, Democrats and even some Republicans have a problem with something GOP leaders tucked into the bill: $1.5 billion in emergency disaster aid, paid for with money pulled from one of Democrats' priority programs.

The effort by House Republicans to pay for disaster aid with funds from an Energy Department fuel-efficiency loan program has infuriated Democrats, who say the move is unprecedented since Congress routinely passes emergency spending without offsets since it is, by its very nature, for an emergency. They have also howled about Republicans tying the paid-for disaster aid to the continuing resolution, a must-pass measure. Instead, Democrats are pushing for a separate, standalone bill that provides $6.9 billion in disaster aid, none of it paid for. That bill cleared the Senate last week with bipartisan support, namely with the help of Republicans whose districts have been hit by recent disasters.

But House GOP leaders maintain their push to pay for emergency disaster aid is in line with the new era of austerity on Capitol Hill. And they say they don't have the votes in their party to pass new spending without paying for it, so their proposal is the best way forward.

So begins the standoff, which at this point shows nobody willing to budge. And with the House set to leave on Friday for a weeklong recess, lawmakers are left with just a handful of days to resolve their differences before the non-negotiable deadline of Sept. 30.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) signaled Tuesday that he is ready for a fight on the matter. During remarks on the Senate floor, he vowed to insert the Senate language into the House bill as soon as it comes to the Senate.

"Tomorrow, when the Senate receives the House bill to fund the government for six more weeks, we will amend it with the language of the Senate FEMA legislation," Reid said.

"Of course, I know this amendment will enjoy the support of my Republican colleagues, as it did just last week, when a bipartisan group of senators agreed that helping communities destroyed by natural disasters was too important to let politics get in the way," he added.

But House Republican leaders say they can't pass what Reid wants, which they say means the onus is on Senate Democrats to either pass the House continuing resolution as is or be at fault for delaying desperately needed disaster money to the Federal Emergency Management Administration. FEMA's disaster relief fund has dropped so low that the agency has already stopped approving long-term reconstruction projects in order to prioritize its resources for immediate emergency needs.

"It'll be on Leader Reid's shoulders, because he's the one playing politics with it," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told reporters Tuesday. "No one wants to stand in the way of disaster relief that's needed. There's nothing else but politics going on here."

The continuing resolution provides $3.65 billion for FEMA's disaster relief fund, compared to the Senate's $6.9 billion. But it's the $1.5 billion in "emergency" disaster spending—that is, money that would become available to FEMA immediately upon the bill's passage, versus being rolled into annual spending bills—that's causing the heartburn because of its offsets.

Cantor dismissed the idea that the House would be to blame for a potential government shutdown because it may adjourn before the Senate can send over its amended version of the continuing resolution. "None of us intend to bring about government shutdown," he said. "I think our country has seen enough of that."

Later Tuesday, Reid and his GOP counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), had mixed takes on the possibility of the showdown resulting in a shutdown.

During a press event, McConnell told reporters he is "confident it will be resolved" before Sept. 30.

"I'm actually not that sure," Reid countered, "because the Tea Party-driven House of Representatives has been so unreasonable in the past. I'm not as certain as McConnell because we're not going to cave in."

The standoff could play out in a handful of ways. Senate Democrats could begrudgingly swallow the House bill in a last-minute effort to avert a shutdown. Or House Republican leaders could find themselves short of votes to block the Senate bill, if enough frustrated Republicans side with Democrats, and pass that bill. Or both sides could hold so firmly to their position that they let a shutdown occur and blame each other in a final maneuver to nudge the other party in their direction.

Republicans in both chambers could also buck their party leaders in the end. Some conservative House Republicans are unhappy that the continuing resolution keeps the government funded at current levels and doesn't make cuts, so they could vote against the House bill on principle. In the Senate, ten Republicans already voted with Democrats last week on the higher-figure disaster aid bill and they could stick with that bill again. Those ten senators are 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.).

The Huffington Post talked to five of those senators about which package they planned to support and most gave wishy-washy answers.

"I'm going to look carefully at what the House is offering and see if there's any room there to do any more than they may be proposing," Blunt said.

Asked if he could envision voting against Reid's amendment, Blunt would only say, "I'm going to look at the options."

"I have to take a look at it first," Heller told HuffPost. "I support it at the levels we supported it. But before I make a final decision, I've got to take another look at it."

Brown and Collins gave equally tepid answers, saying they wanted to see the details of the continuing resolution before weighing in.

Hoeven was the only one to simply say "yes" when asked if he supported Reid amending the House bill to insert the Senate language.

For now, all eyes will be on the House on Wednesday, when the continuing resolution comes to its first vote. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) signaled Tuesday that House Democrats aren't about to support anything that pays for disaster aid via the fuel-efficiency loan program, which spurs the production of clean-energy cars.

"I think Democrats will be loath to support that effort because we think it's counterproductive," Hoyer told reporters. "It is counterproductive to growth in jobs and to the growth in the economy. We think they're making a mistake."

Hoyer said he doesn't know if House Republican leaders even have the votes to pass their bill if it includes the offsets for emergency aid. Some House Republicans whose districts were hit by disasters this year have sided with Democrats in recent weeks in urging GOP leaders to avoid a political fight that could delay FEMA aid.

And of course, the prospect of a government shutdown -- Congress narrowly avoided one in April amid a budget fight -- would have widespread consequences and cast lawmakers in an even worse light than they already are in the public's eyes.

"Clearly, a [continuing resolution] needs to pass," Hoyer added. "But again, it doesn't need to pass with this in it."

Mike McAuliff contributed to this report.