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Government shutdown avoided after disaster relief vote

The Senate voted to fund the government through Nov. 18, after the latest stand-off between House Republicans and Democrats over disaster relief.

By DAVID ESPOAssociated Press Special Correspondent / September 26, 2011

Sen. Charles Schume, a key member of the Senate Democratic leadership, walks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, before the Senate voted to extend funding to the government through Nov. 18.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Ending weeks of political brinkmanship, Congress finessed a dispute over disaster aid Monday night and advanced legislation to avoid a partial government shutdown only days away.

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The agreement ensured there would be no interruption in assistance to areas battered by disasters such as Hurricane Irene and last summer's tornados in Joplin, Mo., and also that the government would be able to run normally when the new budget year begins on Saturday.

The Senate approved the resolution after a day of behind-the-scenes talks and occasionally biting debate, spelling an end to the latest in a string of standoffs between Democrats and Republicans over deficits, spending and taxes. Those fights have rattled financial markets and coincided with polls showing congressional approval ratings at historically low levels

The breakthrough came hours after the Federal Emergency Management Agency indicated it had enough money for disaster relief efforts through Friday. That disclosure allowed lawmakers to jettison a $1 billion replenishment that had been included in the measure — and to crack the gridlock it had caused.

The Democratic-controlled Senate approved the measure on a bipartisan vote of 79-12, sending it to the Republican-controlled House for a final sign-off.

There was no immediate comment from House GOP leaders, although their approval for the measure seemed a mere formality after the party's Senate leader agreed to it.

"This compromise should satisfy Republicans...and it should satisfy Democrats," said Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, who added that Budget Director Jacob Lew had informed him that FEMA did not need any additional funding to meet its needs for the final few days of the budget year.

"It's a win for everyone," declared Reid, who had spent much of the past few weeks accusing Republicans of choosing to heed the wishes of tea party adherents rather than the needs of their own constituents battered by acts of nature.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said it was a "reasonable way to keep the government operational."

But he got in a final jab at Democrats, noting that the disaster funds sought by the Obama administration and its allies in Congress were now known to be unneeded.

"In my view, this entire fire drill was completely unnecessary," he said.

But not even the dispute-resolving agreement prevented Democrats from proceeding to a politically charged vote earlier in the evening that was designed to force Republicans to decide whether immediate aid to disaster victims or deficit concerns held a higher priority.

And the rhetoric was far harsher during the day on the Senate floor, when Mary Landrieu, D-La., unleashed an unusually personal attack on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., saying the weeks-long controversy started when he said, "Before we can provide help we need to find offsets in the budget."

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