Government shutdown averted: Why did Congress get this close?

The Republican determination not to increase the deficit – even for disaster funding – brought Congress within a week of a government shutdown. In the end, FEMA had enough money to get by.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada smiles after talking about the short-term funding bill to avoid a government shutdown after the vote on Capitol Hill in Washington Monday.

In a surprise move, the Senate reached a deal Monday that will likely avert a government shutdown on Oct. 1 and paves the way for funding the government through Nov. 18.

The breakthrough came when Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada informed senators that, contrary to its previous estimates, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had enough money to get through the end of the week.

FEMA funding for the final week of fiscal year 2011, which ends Friday, had been the main obstacle dividing House and Senate lawmakers in their efforts to reach a deal to stave off a government shutdown Saturday. Republicans had wanted any FEMA overruns in this fiscal year to be offset by budget cuts in FY 2012. But most Democrats had rejected this plan.

A shutdown appeared likely until Monday’s announcement defused the issue.

“It shows us the way out,” Reid told senators just before the Monday vote. “Let’s fight when there’s something to fight about. There’s nothing to fight about tonight.”

The Senate passed the spending bill, 79 to 12, but with the House in recess and out of Washington, some procedural hurdles remain. To make the Oct. 1 deadline, the House can hold a voice vote in a pro forma session this week – a move that would not require all House members to return to Washington.

But that will extend the government-shutdown deadline only to Oct. 4. To fund government through Nov. 18 will require a vote of the full House when it returns next week. Reports suggest that House leaders are already throwing their support behind the bill.

As to why FEMA revised its estimates Monday, officials said the FY 2011 numbers have been a moving target. Last week, FEMA officials said they expected funds to run out by Tuesday. By Monday, they had changed course and said the $114 million remaining in the Disaster Relief Fund would be enough.

“It’s important to remember that these are only estimates and the fund fluctuates due to a number of factors that are beyond our control, including the number of additional disaster survivors who register for assistance, as well as additional survivors that become eligible for assistance,” said a FEMA spokesman in an e-mail. “It’s also important to remember that this estimate assumes that no new disasters strike between now and when the fund may reach zero.”

Senators accepted the news gratefully.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky called the agreement “a reasonable way to keep government operational.”

But, he added, the Republican principle that “before we spend taxpayers money we should have a real accounting of what’s actually needed” is still on the table.

House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia had stunned Democrats with his call earlier this month to require spending cuts to offset all disaster-relief spending. Facing opposition even in GOP ranks, this demand was scaled back in the House version of the bill to cover only the rest of FY 2011.

For offsets, House Republicans proposed cutting $1.6 billion in two green energy programs favored by Democrats.

The Senate rejected that House plan on Friday, 59 to 36.

“Had we agreed to what the House wanted to do, the next time would people say you had to cut education before you help the earthquake victims,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York at a press briefing after the vote.

Portions of all but two states – Michigan and West Virginia – have been declared federal disaster areas this year as a result of storms, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, or floods.

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