Senate rejects House spending bill, leaving open possibility of government shutdown

September 23, 2011

The Senate on Friday defeated by a vote of 59 to 36 a GOP-authored short-term funding measure designed to keep the government running through mid-November, ratcheting up the pressure on party leaders to resolve an impasse on federal disaster relief funds ahead of a deadline at the end of next week.

It remained unclear Friday afternoon how leaders in both chambers would resolve the stalemate.

Shortly after Friday’s vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced that the chamber would return Monday afternoon to vote on its own funding measure, a move that cuts into an already-scheduled week-long recess.

The House is also scheduled to recess next week, and House Republican leaders declined to say Friday morning whether they would call lawmakers back into session to continue work on the funding dispute.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency could run out of funding as early as Monday, and the resolution currently keeping the federal government open is set to expire on Sept. 30.

At a Capitol news conference ahead of the Friday morning vote, House Republican leaders urged the Senate to take up the House-passed measure.

“With FEMA expected to run out of disaster funding as soon as Monday, the only path to getting assistance into the hands of American families immediately is for the Senate to approve the House bill,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said.

Hours earlier, the House had approved its version of the legislation by a 219-203 vote in an after-midnight roll call. But Democrats in both chambers have balked at the inclusion of more than $1 billion in cuts elsewhere in the budget in order to offset the additional disaster relief funding.

The vote in the upper chamber came after a midnight roll call, when House Republican leaders persuaded conservatives early Friday morning to support a stop-gap measure nearly identical to one they had rejected just 30 hours earlier. By a narrow margin, 213 Republicans supported the plan, along with six Democrats; 179 Democrats opposed it, joined by 24 Republicans.

Without a resolution, FEMA’s disaster relief fund will run out of money early next week and the rest of the government would be forced to shutdown Oct. 1.

FEMA said its Disaster Relief Fund had just $175 million as of Friday morning and would go broke by early next week, likely on Tuesday.

 An unprecedented depletion of the fund would trigger federal laws governing how agencies are supposed to operate in the absence of funds, and the agency said it is consulting with Obama administration lawyers to determine how to proceed.

 “The administration is committed to doing all it can under current legal authorities to continue vital operations, including assistance to individuals,” FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said in an e-mail. “ But there is no question this is a critical situation and one we are watching closely.” 

House leaders contend that the Senate is responsible for blocking desperately needed disaster dollars from flowing to FEMA.

“You saw the House act,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) as he left the Capitol early Friday morning. “We are intending that the money gets to FEMA and to disaster victims as they need it.”

“I think Harry Reid’s political ploy is not going to work,” Cantor continued. “I guess Harry Reid will have to bear the burden of denying disaster victims the money they need.”

Friday’s House vote marked a reversal of fortunes for Boehner, who after losing the initial Wednesday vote on the House spending resolution found himself roaming the contours of a familiar dilemma — capitulate to fiscal hawks in his own party who want to spend less, or compromise with Democrats who want to spend more.

Instead, Boehner found another route: He huddled all day and night Thursday with his rank-and-file, warning them he would give them one more chance to approve the bill or he would be forced to agree to drop the offsetting cut, as Democrats had demanded.

In addition, after a 90-minute meeting with the House GOP Conference on Thursday afternoon, the leadership agreed to an additional, largely symbolic cut by striking $100 million from a loan program that funded the bankrupt solar panel manufacturer Solyndra. That company, which received the loan guarantees through the Obama administration’s 2009 stimulus legislation, has become a favorite target for Republicans in their critique of the White House’s handling of the economy.

As for the swipe at the program that had funded Solyndra, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) told colleagues on the House floor late Thursday that the goal was to “ensure that hard-earned dollars of the American people are not wasted in the way that we have seen” with the company.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) countered that the measure had hardly changed after a day of wrangling and still made “unacceptable cuts to an essential manufacturing jobs program to pay for equally essential disaster relief.”

The blow-up over what Boehner had once hoped would be a routine matter — a bill to merely keep government operating until Nov. 18 — illustrated what has become a central reality for the Republican speaker: He controls the House majority only on paper.

On any given vote, he must contend with a sizable bloc of his own members willing to buck his leadership in the name of shrinking government.

This leaves him in the uncomfortable position of having to consider alliances with Democrats — and facing negotiating those alliances from a position of weakness.

Despite the embarrassing loss on Wednesday’s vote, Republicans defended the decision to hold the vote even though they realized it was likely to fail. The GOP leadership wanted to demonstrate to the recalcitrant conservatives that their actions had real consequences. One senior Republican adviser called the process “an educational experience.”

“I’ve always believed in allowing the House to work its will. I understood what the risk was yesterday. But why not put the bill on the floor and let the members speak? And they did,” Boehner said Thursday morning at his weekly press briefing.

According to GOP lawmakers and aides, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had reported to Boehner and Cantor that a few dozen Republicans would oppose the legislation, mostly because they thought its spending levels were too far above those they voted for in the spring when they approved the 2012 budget originally proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Boehner’s leadership team knew that it would need Democratic votes to approve the plan, but only by Wednesday afternoon did they fully understand that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) were whipping their caucus to oppose the measure and make Boehner deliver nearly all Republican votes for passage. Rather than pulling the bill from the floor, Boehner told his deputies to hold the vote.

The extraordinary effort required to pass such a basic bill suggests even bigger battles later in the fall on potential blockbuster deficit-reduction plans.

The stopgap spending bill is necessary because the House and Senate have stalemated over how to fund government through the whole year. Without a stopgap in place to buy time for further negotiations, the government will shut down at month’s end.

House leaders had hoped to pass the short-term funding bill without the strife that had characterized recent debates, which they knew would erode financial markets’ confidence and spark further disgust among voters. They would do it by agreeing to set spending in the bill at a rate of $1.043 trillion for the year, the amount set in the rancorous August deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

But that plan ran headlong into the political realities of their divided chamber — as well as a congressional calendar that provides for a week-long recess starting Friday so that Jewish lawmakers can observe their holidays next week.

Democrats, stung by accusations that they had made too many concessions in the debt fight during the summer, stood unified against the measure over a Republican decision to pair $3.65 billion in funding for disaster relief with a $1.5 billion spending cut to the the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program, which offers loans to car companies to encourage the production of energy-efficient cars. That particular cut was anathema to many Democrats, who argued that the loan program has generated tens of thousands of jobs.

Democrats relished the prospect that their unified opposition forced Boehner to publicly struggle.

“In the House, the majority controls all the mechanisms,” said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.). “You’d better be able to produce the votes. You just cant go willy-nilly to the floor and then say, ‘Well, oopsy.’ ”

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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