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How Democrats' anger at disaster funding helped doom House spending bill

Conservative Republicans joined the Democrats in opposing the spending bill, whose defeat revives the threat of a government shutdown. A way forward for House leaders is unclear.

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With Congress yet to pass any of its 12 spending bills for FY 2012, an omnibus spending measure now must pass both the House and Senate and be signed by the president. Until this week, leaders on both sides of the aisle had predicted that such a measure would be managed without a shutdown.

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But the call last week by Representative Cantor of Virginia for offsets for all disaster spending set up firefights with Senate Democrats in the runup to this vote. In the end, House Republicans proposed $3.5 billion in disaster funding, offsetting the first $1 billion by cuts to a program to boost energy efficient cars. Senate Democrats propose $6.9 billion in relief, with no offsets.

House Democratic opposition to the GOP plan broke out at a caucus meeting Wednesday morning. The Democrats opposed both the demand for offsets and the target – $1.5 billion cut in funding for a Department of Energy loan program for the production of fuel-efficient cars.

“It’s so frustrating this idea that we require offsets for disaster aid to help people in this country who have been adversely impacted by flooding, hurricanes and tornadoes while at the same time we don’t require offsetting for nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D) of Massachusetts.

In a floor speech before the vote, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi blasted Republicans for failing to honor a “commitment to the American people that at a time of natural disaster we’ll be there.”

In a floor speech on Wednesday, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said that he won’t back down. “As of this morning, FEMA’s disaster fund had almost nothing left,” he said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “It will be broke on Monday.”

If the House passes a measure with offsets for disaster funding, Reid says that he will strip it out on the Senate floor and substitute a $6.9 billion alternative with no offsets, which the Senate passed last week with the support of 10 Senate Republicans.

“There was such a reaction in the country when [Cantor] said that all disaster aid had to be paid for that he had to back off,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York told reporters after the vote.

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