Setting up a battle with the GOP-controlled House, Senate Democrats on Thursday muscled through a $7 billion bill to replenish nearly empty federal disaster aid accounts.
The chamber advanced the legislation by a 62-37 vote to defeat a Republican filibuster. Ten Republicans joined with every Democrat present to adopt the measure, which includes $500 million in immediate, emergency funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to make sure FEMA won't have to cut off help for victims of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee at the end of the month.
Most of the rest of the $7 billion would keep FEMA disaster accounts full for the budget year beginning Oct. 1, while providing $1.35 billion to repair Army Corps of Engineers activities like repairing levees and dredging flooded waterways.
The vote is a welcome win for Democrats who have gotten used to seeing Republicans block them almost at will in the chamber, where 60 of 100 votes is needed for most legislation. Democrats control the senate with 53 votes.
The legislation still faces opposition from Republicans controlling the House. They promise action on a competing plan in the House next week that would provide $3.7 billion in disaster aid but require $1 billion in immediate aid for the 2011 budget year to be "paid for" with offsetting cuts to an Obama administration-backed loan program to encourage the production of fuel-efficient vehicles.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who is still battling for funding for projects to rebuild from Hurricane Katrina of 2005, which devastated her state six years ago, said the House measure is "wholly inadequate for the challenge before the nation right now."
Since the House measure is attached to a bill needed to avert a government shutdown, Republicans may have the edge in the partisan dispute. The GOP House may simply ignore the Senate measure and pass their own, which could give the Senate little choice but to go along or risk the blame for a shutdown.
The House-Senate battle comes as the government's main disaster account is at risk of running out of money before the Sept. 30 end of the budget year. If the fund runs out — it now contains about $350 million — FEMA would have to suspend aid to disaster victims.
FEMA's relief fund is the main source of help for victims of the widespread flooding and other damage due to Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. The agency provides help like emergency shelter, clothing and money to repair disaster-damaged homes. It also funds longer-term rebuilding projects like repairs to public buildings and infrastructure, but the money crunch has forced FEMA to suspend such aid to conserve money for the emergency needs of recent disasters.
Typically disaster aid is added to the budget as an emergency expense, and the insistence by Republicans on so-called offsets has Democrats fuming.
A larger question is whether House GOP leaders this fall will allow the annual appropriations bills to be adjusted upward by more than $11 billion under a new approach devised in last month's budget deal which seeks to budget for disasters in advance rather than on an ad hoc basis. The new disaster funding mechanism has been embraced by Majority Leader Republican Eric Cantor, R-Va., but it's not clear whether he's supported by the rank and file — or House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who hasn't addressed the topic.
The White House requested $5.1 billion in additional disaster aid money only last Friday, which had been a source of frustration for lawmakers responsible for funding disaster accounts.
The administration requested just $1.8 billion for FEMA's disaster funding in February, well short of documented needs to respond to past disasters like hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav and the massive Tennessee floods of last spring. The tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., and across Alabama this spring only made the problem worse.
The Senate measure contains:
—$5.1 billion for FEMA's disaster fund.
—$1.35 billion for the Corps of Engineers to repair flood control and other projects.
—$266 million for Agriculture Department for conservation, watershed protection, and forest restoration programs.
—$135 million for Economic Development Administration grants to communities for to rebuild infrastructure.
—$100 million for Community Development Block Grants to local governments.