On spending, Congress can't agree on easy stuff

Monday - 9/26/2011, 2:39pm EDT

By LAURIE KELLMAN
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Congress is once again allowing shutdown politics to bring the federal government to the brink of closing.

For the second time in nine months, lawmakers are bickering and posturing over spending plans. The difference this time is that everyone agrees on the massive barrel of money to keep the government running for another seven weeks.

"It is embarrassing," Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., admitted Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." Warner asked: "Can we, once again, inflict on the country and the American people the spectacle of a near government shutdown?"

At issue is a small part of the almost $4 trillion budget intended for an infrequent purpose: federal dollars to help victims of floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters and whether some of the expense should be offset by cuts in other government spending.

This sort of crisis management has cost Congress credibility in the eyes of the electorate, with about eight in 10 Americans disapproving of the institution's performance after this summer's debt crisis. A major credit agency downgraded the nation's ratings as a result, unnerving the world's financial markets.

FEMA estimates that as of Monday morning, it had $114 million left in its disaster relief account, enough to last until Thursday or Friday, said agency spokeswoman Rachel Racusen. That is a couple of days longer than FEMA estimated last week, which an agency official attributed to unused money FEMA has been able to reclaim from grants to states for recovery projects that have been completed.

Those extra days are significant because that means FEMA may not need additional money to function until Saturday, when the government's new fiscal year begins. That takes some pressure off House and Senate leaders who have been unable to strike a compromise on a bill providing disaster relief and financing the government until mid-November.

The current standoff raises a question: If lawmakers can't even agree to help victims of natural disasters, how are they going to strike a deal to cut $1.5 trillion in spending this fall in the white-hot climate of presidential and congressional politics?

The uncertainty isn't helping officials in Joplin, Mo., desperate to rebuild homes and put people back to work after a devastating tornado in May.

"We can appreciate the efforts to get our national economy in better order, but we're concerned about how that's going to affect us," Joplin Mayor Mike Woolston said Friday, as Congress headed home for the weekend, the standoff unresolved.

Woolston said he thinks lawmakers will come to an agreement before the Federal Emergency Management Agency runs out of money.

"But the devil's in the details," he said. "How long will it take, how much disaster funding will there be?"

Uncertain is whether the closely divided Senate and Republican-controlled House can find reason to agree, and then do it _ a tall order against a history of nick-of-time accords over the budget in April and raising the debt limit in late July.

This time, even the promise of a scheduled vacation this week couldn't break the impasse. Lawmakers instead backed themselves into a new standoff last Friday, requiring at least the Senate to come back in session part of this week.

On Friday, the Democratic-controlled Senate blocked the House bill that would provide stop-gap federal spending, plus aid for people battered by a spate of natural disasters. The legislation also calls for $1.6 billion in spending cuts to help defray the disaster costs.

The House, meanwhile, left town for a weeklong recess and the Jewish holidays.

What remained was a familiar so's-your-mother partisan spat, with trillions of federal dollars _ more than $3 billion for disaster victims _ at stake.

Democrats complained that it's unprecedented and unfair to insist that spending cuts accompany badly needed emergency aid. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who earlier in the week had said passage of the bill was urgent, on Friday put off a vote until Monday. The only option, he said, was to "capitulate to the job-destroying bill" from the House.

While Warner joined those blaming tea party-driven House Republicans, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., pointed to Reid. "He manufactured a crisis all week about disaster when there's no crisis," Alexander told CNN. He accused Democrats of "chest-pounding and game-playing."

Republicans say that with a $14 trillion-plus national debt, voters will find it outrageous that Democrats wouldn't accept $1.6 billion in spending cuts. Democrats, they said, had not learned the lesson of the 2010 elections, when tea party-backed conservatives won enough seats to give Republicans control of the House.