US averts shutdown with accord

Senator Mary Landrieu spoke to reporters as colleagues Charles Schumer (left), Debbie Stabenow, and Harry Reid listened.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Senator Mary Landrieu spoke to reporters as colleagues Charles Schumer (left), Debbie Stabenow, and Harry Reid listened.

WASHINGTON — The Senate reached a bipartisan spending agreement yesterday to avert a government shutdown, sidestepping a bitter impasse over disaster financing after federal authorities said they could most likely squeak though the rest of this week with the $144 million they have on hand.

After blocking one Democratic proposal, the Senate voted, 79 to 12, to approve a straightforward seven-week extension of funding for government agencies that were due to run out of money Friday, simultaneously replenishing accounts at the Federal Emergency Management Agency that this summer’s string of natural disasters nearly exhausted.

“It shows us the way out,’’ said Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, who said the plan should be satisfactory to both Democrats and Republicans. “It means we no longer have to fight.’’

The FEMA finding that it had money for the week was the key to the breakthrough since it eliminated one of the main points of partisan contention: whether to offset a quick infusion of funds to the agency with cuts elsewhere as House Republicans had insisted. Democrats in both the House and Senate had resisted that approach, saying it would set a bad precedent.

While the Senate actions appeared to head off a government shutdown for a second time this year, the embarrassing fight over disaster aid pulled into sharp relief both the enduring, sinewy power of the Tea Party movement - and its deep impact on fiscal policy - and Democrats’ revived pugnacity as they press President Obama’s jobs plan through next year’s elections.

To ease potential objections, the Senate also passed, in a voice vote, a measure that would extend government funding for just a week to allow time to work out the longer-term agreement when the House returns next week.

The House, whose members are back in their districts for a week’s recess, would have to sign off on any bill to keep the government running after the end of the fiscal year, since the Senate rejected the House Republican plan last week.

Senate officials hoped they could win quick consent on the one-week solution in a pro forma session of the House this week, calculating that House leaders would not want to be blamed for causing a shutdown by failing to consider a plan that received strong Senate support. Democrats said they expected the House Republicans to concur with the Senate’s overall solution.

“It is hard to see how House Republicans would reject this proposal,’’ said Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the number three Democrat in the Senate.

Even as they approved the funding arrangement, members of both parties said the fight had gone too far and that the issue should have been resolved without such political pain.

“In my view, this entire fire drill was completely unnecessary,’’ said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. “But I’m glad a resolution now appears to be at hand.’’

As the Senate headed for its showdown, FEMA and administration budget officials informed lawmakers that the agency would likely be able to make disaster relief payments through the rest of the week. Reid then reached out to House Speaker John A. Boehner to discuss a short-term solution.

Democrats sought to frame the latest problem as one manufactured by House Republicans, who last week passed their own bill to provide $3.65 billion in disaster relief to FEMA paid for with cuts to loan programs to support energy-efficient cars and alternative energy.

Senate Democrats, who were displeased with the level of disaster aid and the cuts, rejected that bill Friday. (Some Republicans also voted against the bill, on the grounds that it did not make sufficient cuts to current-year spending.)

Senator Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat and a central proponent of advancing the aid without corresponding cuts, repeatedly called the House position the “Cantor doctrine,’’ in reference to Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, who almost immediately after a moderate earthquake rattled his state said any disaster aid spent this year would need to be offset with spending cuts.

Immediate emergency aid for natural disaster victims has historically been distributed without offsets in the budget. Congressional officials said the question of how to handle disaster funding was likely to be revisited this fall if the administration sought a special spending bill to cover disaster costs around the nation.

Reid batted away the idea that Republicans would seek later offsets for disaster funding for the next fiscal year.

“If they want to go through this again, they are looking for more losses,’’ he said. “Americans are just so upset.’’

Twelve Republicans opposed the seven-week funding bill yesterday. Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said he voted against both bills yesterday because “they would delay the process by punting back to the House’’ and because the second bill would provide less disaster relief for his state.

House Republican officials, who were on the phone with members of their caucus last night, could not give assurances that the Senate bill would find immediate acquiescence in their chamber. But they did seek to portray the bill as their victory.

“Washington Democrats attempted to grandstand and delay needed disaster relief to score political points,’’ said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner. “Republicans stood firm, and Senate Democrats have conceded that the spending level in the House-passed bill was the most responsible solution.’’