The Senate voted Thursday to spend $7 billion on emergency disaster relief over the next year, as Democrats and Republicans from storm- and tornado-ravaged states joined for a forceful show of support for storm victims that will set up a showdown with the House on disaster funding.
The measure passed 62 to 37 as eight Republicans defied their party leadership, which had rejected the measure as an unnecessary political sideshow and backed the spending.
“We can spend hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s spend a small amount of money to rebuild America for Americans,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), whose state has been hit hard by flooding as a result of Hurricane Irene, as Democrats savored a rare legislative victory.
Their success is likely to be short-lived.
The House will vote next week on a broader measure to fund the government through mid-November that will include $3.65 billion for disaster relief.
House leaders say the Senate’s effort exceeds even the White House’s $5.1 billion request for the Federal Emergency Management Administration and was designed largely to score political points.
They maintain that their approach, which they say would include sufficient funding for FEMA for the foreseeable future and a commitment to revisit the issue later in the fall, is a better way to make sure that disaster clean-up is paid for in a time of anemic budgets.
The House proposal would offset a portion of the FEMA funds with a $1.5 billion cut from a program designed to offer loans to encourage the production of energy efficient cars.
“What we’re trying to do is finally face facts,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on the House floor Thursday. “We in this body and in this chamber must stop the government from spending money it does not have.”
Senate Democrats say embedding the funding in the broader continuing appropriations resolution, which is designed to keep government running through Nov. 18 while the House and Senate keep negotiating about funding the remainder of the 2012 fiscal year, would provide insufficient dollars.
That approach would be “wholly inadequate,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
They say insisting that disaster funding be paired with spending cuts fails to acknowledge the severity of disasters that have hit states this year.
FEMA’s disaster relief fund, which reimburses individual and local governments for disaster repair, has dipped to $350 million as victims of repeated storms, fires, tornadoes and earthquakes have applied for funds.
However, asked whether Democrats would refuse to pass the continuing resolution without more FEMA dollars — a showdown that would result in a government shutdown at the end of the month — she demurred.
“These negotiations will go on next week,” she said.
But, she added, “I will negotiate on amounts. I will negotiate on pieces that need to be put in. But I will not negotiate on funding disaster victims in these communities six weeks at a time.”