Another Capitol Hill fight has broken out--or maybe it's another flare-up of a protracted battle--over federal spending.
The latest dispute, largely partisan, centers on a continuing resolution, or CR, to keep government agencies running through the first seven weeks of fiscal year 2012, which begins on Oct. 1--and a need to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund, which has run low because of the costs of tornadoes, Hurricane Irene and other natural disasters this year.
If no spending measure is enacted by Oct. 1, federal agencies would have to cease operations.
Lawmakers say they don't want to see a government shutdown, and also recognize the need to provide more money for FEMA--and quickly. But most Republicans want to offset the FEMA aid by cutting other spending. Most Democrats object to the offsetting "pay-for."
With only a few days left before Oct. 1, the outcome was unclear. The new spending mess is the latest in a series of headaches for design and construction companies that pursue federal projects. For many months, they have had to weather the uncertainties caused by multiple short-term appropriations stopgaps as well as extensions for highway, transit and airport authorizations.
The latest squabble heated up on Sept. 21, when the House rejected a stopgap drafted by its GOP leaders that also included $3.65 billion for disaster relief, partly offset by a $1-billion cut in the Dept. of Energy's Advanced Vehicle Manufacturing Program. Some Republicans voted against the bill because they felt its basic, non-FEMA, funding was too high.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his team revised that measure slightly, adding a further $100 million offsetting cut to the DOE's Innovative Technology loan Guarantee Program, which extended a loan guarantee to solar energy company Solyndra. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in August. The House approved the new CR early in the morning on Sept. 23.
The House-passed bill then went to the Senate, which, at about midday on Sept. 23, derailed it, on a 59-36 tally. Seven Republicans and all but one Democrat--Nebraska's Ben Nelson--voted for the bill. A major sticking point for Democrats was the House's cut to offset some of the $3.65 billion for FEMA.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) said, "Leader Reid and his colleagues in the Senate will have much to answer for if they don't reverse course and pass the reasonable, bipartisan House CR that will keep the lights on in government and provide this much-needed disaster relief."
After the Senate vote, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took the floor and proposed a new CR. It would include the House's $3.65 billion for FEMA--a concession on Reid's part, because earlier this month, the Senate had approved a different bill with $6.9 billion for FEMA disaster relief. But Reid's new proposal had no offsetting spending reductions.
At a press conference after his floor remarks, Reid said he could not see a scenario in which he would agree to any offsetting spending cuts.
Reid also scheduled a procedural vote, to ward off a filibuster, on his new proposal Monday, Sept. 26 and 5:30 p.m. But he may not be able to count on enough Republicans to win the 60 votes needed to prevail on that cloture vote.
Reid also proposed to meet over the weekend with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to try to work out a deal. He said the meeting would be a way to "cool off and let us work together and find common ground."
But through recent contentious tussles over the debt limit and deficit reduction and aviation authorization, that common ground has been hard to locate.