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.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is joined by Sen. Mary Landrieu left, as they speak about funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday. On Wednesday, the House rejected a spending bill that was needed to avoid a government shutdown.

A stop-gap spending plan to keep the government running through Nov. 18 failed in the House Wednesday by a 230-to-195 margin, as Democratic support that the GOP leadership had counted on vanished in a dispute over disaster funding.

The failure, which threatens a government shutdown if no continuing resolution (CR) is approved by Oct. 1, sent GOP leaders scrambling for a fix that can muster a majority, but a way forward is not clear.

At the core of the Democrats’ opposition to the funding plan was anger at House majority leader Eric Cantor’s demand that the disaster funding be offset by cuts elsewhere.

But dismay over the disaster funding was not limited to the Democrats. While most GOP naysayers voted against the plan because they said it spent too much, others – especially those in districts recovering from natural disasters – said it spent too little.

“As we speak, people are back home in my district with hip boots throwing out their life’s possessions,” says freshman Rep. Lou Barletta (R) of Pennsylvania, who voted against the bill. “I want to get the most I can for people back home.”

More than 50 GOP conservatives sent Speaker John Boehner of Ohio a letter last week threatening to vote down any measure that exceeded a rate of spending specified by the House’s 2012 fiscal year budget passed in April. Most kept that pledge in Wednesday’s vote.

House leaders typically don’t bring bills to the floor and then lose. But Mr. Boehner has defined his speakership around the principle of allowing votes to “let the House work its will” – a stance that has helped manage the aspirations of a robust freshmen class, many elected with strong tea party support.

“No leader wants to go into a vote knowing he’s going to lose, unless he wants to make a point, which in fact may be what’s happening,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

GOP leaders had counted on support from Democrats to pass the CR. Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, had pledged support as recently as Tuesday.

“I said at the Rules Committee meeting that I was prepared to go along, but that was before there was a real uprising in our caucus,” Congressman Dicks said after the vote.

With a new fiscal year set to begin on Oct. 1, the failed vote sets up yet another scramble to avoid a government shutdown. Congress’s agenda has been driven by fiscal crises ever since Republicans took back control of the House in January 2011. Lawmakers took a tough vote in April to fund government for the balance of the 2011 fiscal year, then, in August, a tougher vote to raise the national debt limit to nearly $17 trillion.

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.

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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