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On spending, Congress can't agree on easy stuff

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LAURIE KELLMAN
September 26, 2011
— Congress is once again allowing shutdown politics to bring the federal government to the brink of closing.

For the second time in nine months, lawmakers are bickering and posturing over spending plans. The difference this time is that everyone agrees on the massive barrel of money to keep the government running for another seven weeks.


"It is embarrassing," Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., admitted Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." Warner asked: "Can we, once again, inflict on the country and the American people the spectacle of a near government shutdown?"


At issue is a small part of the $1.3 trillion budget intended for an infrequent purpose: federal dollars to help victims of floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters and whether some of the expense should be offset by cuts in other government spending.


This sort of crisis management has cost Congress credibility in the eyes of the electorate, with about eight in 10 Americans disapproving of the institution's performance after this summer's debt crisis. A major credit agency downgraded the nation's ratings as a result, unnerving the world's financial markets.


The current standoff raises a question: If lawmakers can't even agree to help victims of natural disasters, how are they going to strike a deal to cut $1.5 trillion in spending this fall in the white-hot climate of presidential and congressional politics?


The uncertainty isn't helping officials in Joplin, Mo., desperate to rebuild homes and put people back to work after a devastating tornado in May.


"We can appreciate the efforts to get our national economy in better order, but we're concerned about how that's going to affect us," Joplin Mayor Mike Woolston said Friday, as Congress headed home for the weekend, the standoff unresolved.


Woolston said he thinks lawmakers will come to an agreement before the Federal Emergency Management Agency runs out of money this week; FEMA officials said it had just $175 million in its coffers.


"But the devil's in the details," he said. "How long will it take, how much disaster funding will there be?"


That depends on whether the closely divided Senate and Republican-controlled House can find reason to agree, and then do it a tall order against a history of nick-of-time accords over the budget in April and raising the debt limit in late July.


This time, even the promise of a scheduled vacation this week couldn't break the impasse. Lawmakers instead backed themselves into a new standoff Friday, requiring at least the Senate to come back in session part of this week.


On Friday, the Democratic-controlled Senate blocked the House bill that would provide stop-gap federal spending, plus aid for people battered by a spate of natural disasters. The legislation also calls for $1.6 billion in spending cuts to help defray the disaster costs.


The House, meanwhile, left town for a weeklong recess and the Jewish holidays.


What remained was a familiar so's-your-mother partisan spat, with trillions of federal dollars more than $3 billion for disaster victims at stake.


Democrats complained that it's unprecedented and unfair to insist that spending cuts accompany badly needed emergency aid. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who earlier in the week had said passage of the bill was urgent, on Friday put off a vote until Monday. The only option, he said, was to "capitulate to the job-destroying bill" from the House.


While Warner joined those blaming tea party-driven House Republicans, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., pointed to Reid. "He manufactured a crisis all week about disaster when there's no crisis," Alexander told CNN. He accused Democrats of "chest-pounding and game-playing."


Republicans say that with a $14 trillion-plus national debt, voters will find it outrageous that Democrats wouldn't accept $1.6 billion in spending cuts. Democrats, they said, had not learned the lesson of the 2010 elections, when tea party-backed conservatives won enough seats to give Republicans control of the House.


"We are sending a message to people that freezing spending is paramount," said one of those GOP freshmen, Michigan Rep. Bill Huizenga.


Democrats, meanwhile, are betting voters will find it petty and manipulative to let tornado and hurricane victims wonder if federal aid will be denied because lawmakers want to cut aid to automakers.


It's possible that Congress will find a last-minute way to avoid a shutdown of many federal agencies when the fiscal year ends on Friday. The Senate plans to vote Monday on a Democratic bill that would not require spending offsets to release new money for FEMA.


But GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is confident Republicans will block the Democrats' move. It takes 41 votes to sustain a filibuster in the 100-member Senate, and the Republicans hold 47 seats.


If the GOP succeeds, the Senate could accept the House Republican bill it rejected on Friday. Or legislative leaders could try to negotiate their way past the logjam. House leaders said they don't plan to call their members back to Washington.


Still looming is the rest of the debt-limit deal. By Thanksgiving, a supercommittee of 12 House and Senate Democrats and Republicans must produce $1.5 trillion in cuts over the next decade. If they stumble, or Congress rejects their proposal, automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion would kick in, slashing domestic and defense programs. Congress is slated to vote on that package by the end of the year.



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