For the second time this month, the Senate voted against putting more money into a program that helps low-income families meet home heating costs.

Senators who opposed the $3.1 billion in emergency money for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (search) said the aid would be dealt with as part of a larger emergency spending bill that Congress probably will consider soon.

But advocates said that with the weather turning cold in northern states and energy prices soaring, there was no time to delay. Many families, said Sen. Jack Reed (search), D-R.I., a sponsor of the measure, face a stark choice — "to heat or to eat."

Fifty-three senators voted on Thursday for the amendment to a transportation and housing spending bill, seven short of the 60 needed to waive budget rules on new spending. Forty-six opposed it.

The amendment by Reed and Sen. Susan Collins (search), R-Maine, would have added $3.1 billion to the Bush administration's $2 billion request for the program that helps low income families with heating, cooling and other energy-related home repairs.

Reed and others said that with natural gas prices expected to rise by 50 percent and heating oil by more than 30 percent this winter, $5.1 billion is needed just to keep pace with the program's needs.

"We have a pot of money that is going to have to be spread over a larger population at a time when prices are soaring," Collins said.

Earlier in October, Sen. John Kerry (search), D-Mass., picked up 50 votes, 10 short of the 60 needed, when he tried to attach similar spending to a defense spending bill.

The government began assisting low-income families with home heating costs in 1974, when an OPEC embargo was driving up energy prices. The Health and Human Services Department began the current heating aid program in 1982, with $1.9 billion appropriated that year.

Last year states provided 4 million households with such assistance.