The US Senate reached a bipartisan spending agreement on Monday 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 US$144 million they have on hand.
After blocking one Democratic proposal, the Senate voted 79-12 to approve a straightforward seven-week extension of funding for government agencies that were due to run out of money on Friday, simultaneously replenishing accounts at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that this summer’s string of natural disasters nearly exhausted.
“It shows us the way out,” US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, 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 US House of Representative 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 — and its deep impact on fiscal policy — and Democrats’ revived pugnacity as they press US President Barack 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 financing for four days 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 four-day 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.
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,” Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “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 US House Speaker John 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 US$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 as well as the cuts, rejected that bill on Friday.