Despite opposition from Democrats and some tea party Republicans, the GOP-controlled House on Wednesday took up $3.7 billion in disaster relief as part of a bill to avert a government shutdown at the end of the month.
Democrats came out against the bill because it contains $1.5 billion in cuts from a government loan program to help car companies build more fuel-efficient vehicles.
That money would pay for the most urgently needed portion of the disaster aid that's required to avoid a cutoff next week of Federal Emergency Management Agency relief to victims of Hurricane Irene, recent Texas wildfires and Tropical Storm Lee.
"They're going to pay for this bill. How? By ending a program that has created jobs," said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich. "It cuts it off, even though there are (loan) applications pending that will create thousands of more jobs in the manufacturing base of this country — In Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, California, Michigan and other states. It's inexcusable."
GOP leaders are also encountering opposition from tea party Republicans like Rep. Jeff Landry of Louisiana, who opposes the stopgap measure because it permits a higher spending rate than Republicans proposed last spring. The measure instead follows a hard-fought spending pact endorsed by GOP leaders and President Barack Obama.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., predicted Wednesday that the stopgap measure, commonly called a continuing resolution, or CR, will pass.
In the Senate, the measure awaits a battle with Democrats. That fight involves how much disaster aid to provide and whether any of it should be paid for with offsetting spending cuts.
FEMA has only a few days' worth of aid remaining in its disaster relief fund. The agency has already held up thousands of longer-term rebuilding projects — repairs to sewer systems, parks, roads and bridges, for example — to conserve money to provide emergency relief to victims of recent disasters.
The House measure contains $1 billion in immediate aid for the 2011 budget year that's about to end and another $2.7 billion for the 2012 budget year beginning Oct. 1. The Senate measure totals $6.9 billion, with $804 million proposed for the last few days of fiscal 2011.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that once the stopgap measure passes the House, he'll move to substitute the Senate's more generous aid package for the House's version. It will take at least seven Republicans to join with majority Democrats to win the 60 votes likely required to defeat GOP blocking tactics.
Ten Republicans voted with Reid last week to pass the stand-alone disaster aid measure, but their votes can't be taken for granted now. Tea party favorites like Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., were among those who voted with Reid last week, but they told reporters Wednesday that they'll instead support the partially paid-for House version.
If two more Senate Republicans switch, Reid would no longer have the 60 votes he needs.
In the House, Democrats are rallying against the measure because of accompanying cuts to an Energy Department program that subsidizes low-interest loans to help car companies and parts manufacturers retool factories to build vehicles that will meet new, tougher fuel economy standards. These lawmakers include House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and top Appropriations Committee Democrat Norm Dicks of Washington. Both had previously said they would support the measure.
Democrats say cutting the loan program could cost up to 10,000 jobs because there wouldn't be enough money for all pending applications.
Democrats say that $3.5 billion of loan subsidies has supported loans totaling $9.2 billion that created or saved 41,000 jobs in Tennessee, California, Indiana, Michigan, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Ohio. Ford Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. have already received loans; Chrysler Group is awaiting final approval of a loan.
A protracted showdown could ultimately lead to a partial shutdown of the government when the budget year ends Sept. 30. That's unlikely, however.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., predicted the conflict could be worked out in time for the Senate to make a Thursday night getaway to a weeklong recess. Such a scenario probably depends on Republicans prevailing.
"Congress always responds appropriately to disasters," McConnell said. "We're having a discussion about the appropriate way to do that, and I'm confident it will be resolved."
Reid, however, is spoiling for the battle. "We're not going to cave in on this," he said.
The underlying stopgap funding measure would finance the government through Nov. 18 to give lawmakers more time to try to reach agreement on the 12 unfinished spending bills needed to run government agencies on a day-to-day basis for the 2012 budget year.