WASHINGTON — U.S. House Republicans passed a temporary spending bill early Friday morning to avert government shutdown next week that was then rejected by Senate Democrats with Louisiana lawmakers in the scrum.
The clash between the two chambers came over whether federal money to help victims of hurricanes and other disasters would be paid for by cuts to other programs in the federal budget, which the Republican-controlled House approved. All six U.S. House Republicans from Louisiana voted with their party.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., took to the floor shortly after the Democratic-held Senate quashed the House bill, 59-36, calling for a rejection of the spending cuts, known as offsets.
“If you vote to require an offset and another storm hits your state, then it is going to be the responsibility on your shoulder to tell your people ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you until I go to Washington and find an offset,’” Landrieu said.
Landrieu has commandeered the U.S. Senate floor for the past two weeks, coaxing colleagues to approve $6.9 billion in disaster spending without offsetting budget cuts. But the U.S. House version, which passed 219-203, included $3.65 billion that was paid for, in part, by a $1.5 billion cut to a federal loan program aimed at making cars more efficient.
The clash is spilling over into next week, when Congress is supposed to be on recess. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., introduced his own legislation Friday accepting the House disaster number but cutting out the offsets.
Louisiana’s Republican congressmen argued that paying for disaster aid is necessary at a time when the federal government is facing a record national debt and federal deficit.
In the past, disaster money has been approved through emergency spending bills sent down by the president without offsets.
“I think as long as the money gets there, that’s what counts,” said U.S. Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden. “From our perspective, it needs to be paid for. There is still a lot of fat in government.
“What happened in the past is that we don’t budget for it, and we have to add to the deficit every time there is a disaster,” Fleming added.
U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, voted against the House measure, joining fellow Democrats who are upset with adding conditions before providing money to help disaster victims.
Republicans pointed to the recent collapse of a California-based solar panel maker, Solyndra, which received a $530 million loan backed by the Obama administration. The company declared bankruptcy and is now under federal investigation.
“We wouldn’t be dealing with these offsets if the administration and this Congress wouldn’t do things like spend $530 million on a failed business like Solyndra,” said U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia.
Landry, Fleming and U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, said the $3.65 billion is not a hard and fast figure.
The legislation voted on, known as a continuing resolution, allows the government to keep operating beyond the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30 until Nov. 18 because Congress has yet to approve the 12 spending bills needed to fund next year.
Congress can always return to the disaster issue should more money be necessary, Cassidy said.
“It balances the tensions between how we take care of those who are hurting and how we can be fiscally responsible for the future,” Cassidy said. “It’s a heckuva lot of money and we can always go back and add more.”
The Disaster Relief Fund managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency is almost depleted due to tornadoes, wildfires, floods and the destruction caused by Hurricane Irene four weeks ago.
Landrieu and other opponents of offsets said when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, about $66 billion was immediately sent South by the federal government without offsets. Landrieu also pointed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as emergencies that needed to be funded.
“Not one Republican, to my mind, either in the Senate or the House ever asked for five minutes to debate one dollar to offset war or rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan,” Landrieu said.
Congress was set to start a weeklong recess Friday that is now likely wrecked by the battle. The U.S. Senate plans to come in on Monday to take up Reid’s legislation. If the Reid measure can get by a Republican filibuster, the bill would be sent back to the House, which would be forced to return from its break.
U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., voted against Reid’s motion to table the House resolution. Landrieu acquiesced to adopting the House disaster figure as long as the offset isn’t required, she said.
“I’m willing to work with them in any way,” Landrieu said. “But let’s not go down this dangerous, dangerous and inappropriate road.”
The Associated Press contributed this report.