UPDATE 9/26/2011: Senate leaders announced on Monday evening that they have reached an agreement to keep the government running.
The resolution funds the federal government through Nov. 18, including $2.65 billion for FEMA that the agency can start using on Saturday. The new amount reduces $1 billion from the House's proposed figure, instead of offsetting it with cuts to a Department on Energy lending program to support energy-efficient cars. Democrats agreed to the reduced amount in light of FEMA's announcement earlier in the day that it could stretch its current funding to last through Friday.
Although the deal still needs approval in the House, the Senate is hoping the measure will avert a government shutdown.
Government agency funding is set to expire on Friday, and last week the Republican-controlled House passed its bill to extend spending and provide additional money for disaster relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The agency has nearly depleted its resources after this year's string of hurricanes, tornadoes, tropical storms and wildfires. But the bill's $3.65 billion for FEMA has a catch — the demand that it be offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. They found $1.5 billion in savings, for example, through an Energy Department program that makes loans to car companies for manufacturing energy-efficient cars.
Dismayed Democrats say that requiring offsets for emergency aid has never been done in the past — and it's not a precedent they want to set. The Senate is preparing to vote on a measure providing $3.65 billion to FEMA without the spending cuts stipulated in the House bill. The measure is a compromise from an earlier Senate bill that had requested $7 billion for emergency relief.
If the two sides don't reach an agreement, FEMA is close to running out of money this week. The rest of the government would shut down by October.
It Hits Home for These Lawmakers
"It's outrageous that the Republican Tea Party has decided to hold disaster relief for thousands of Americans hostage while they threaten to shut down the government for no good reason," Rep. William "Lacy" Clay (D-Mo.) told The Root. "We come to D.C. to do the people's business, not to engage in bad political theater."
The danger of putting emergency aid on the line is close to home for Clay, who saw tornadoes tear through his Missouri district last spring and cause extreme damage to other parts of the state. "FEMA is essential to helping local communities get back on their feet," he said. "In Joplin, Missouri, we had a once-in-a-lifetime disaster — 165 people dead, more than 1,000 injuries and 8,000 structures destroyed. No local or state government is prepared to handle something like that. That's why we have FEMA, and that's why we should never politicize disaster recovery funding."
Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) likewise finds the House bill irresponsible. She represents an Alabama district that was also struck by tornadoes that killed more than 200 people in the state last spring. The Department of Energy, she further pointed out, says that the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing loan program on the chopping block has created at least 38,000 permanent jobs and 4,000 constructing jobs over the past two years.
"We should not have to choose between protecting thousands of jobs and ensuring that families have the necessary resources to rebuild and recover when a major disaster strikes," said Sewell. "I think it's wrong to try and balance the budget on the backs of people who have had their lives destroyed by natural disasters."
What "Fiscally Responsible" Truly Means
Although House Republicans argue that it makes good, deficit-trimming sense to offset funding for emergency aid, Clay isn't buying their stated concern over fiscal responsibility. "What is fiscally irresponsible is funding two wars to the tune of $1.2 trillion, and a Medicare Prescription Drug Part D benefit, on a credit card," said Clay. "What is fiscally irresponsible is giving two tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires without paying for them. Now, all of a sudden, they have this premonition that they want to be fiscally responsible? Where were they for the last decade?"
Clay continued that Republicans have become too accustomed to using political brinkmanship in negotiations. "The more we compromise, the fewer jobs we create," he said. "We need to stop with the compromising, and stop with the false bars that they raise."
Clay and Sewell stopped short, however, of advocating for a government shutdown just to show Republicans the economic and political consequences. Both say they are prepared to work on figuring out a solution that keeps the country functioning.
"We shouldn't fall prey to the same type of obstructionist politics, holding the needs of the American people hostage for political gain," said Sewell. "I look forward to working with my colleagues to seek a resolution to this matter that will include not having to shut down the government."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.