The Senate on Wednesday approved more than $4.1 billion in federal aid to help low-income families meet expected record heating bills this winter.
As part of a separate budget measure, the Senate also approved $1 billion to help low-income families heat their homes next winter.
"Record high heating prices could wipe out many families in the Northeast this winter," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. "We must act now to increase federal assistance for heating programs."
The $4.1 billion for aid this winter was divided between two bills:
--$2.1 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program as part of a spending bill funding programs in the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education departments through next September.
--$2 billion as part of a $453 billion Pentagon bill that had been stalled over objections to a provision opening a wildlife refuge in Alaska to oil drilling. The House, scheduled to reconvene Thursday afternoon, has to vote on the bill again after the Senate stripped the drilling language out of it.
Reed questioned whether the heating aid was added to that bill as a GOP ploy "to simply gain support for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."
New England congressmen, citing double-digit heating cost increases, had fought for $5.1 billion in fuel assistance this winter, saying families can expect their heating oil and natural gas bills to rise by $300 over what they were last winter.
"Providing energy assistance to the poorest citizens of this country during the harsh winter months should be America's top priority," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
About 5 million families rely on LIHEAP funding. The maximum LIHEAP family benefit in Massachusetts this winter is $765, about what a tank of home oil costs, Kennedy noted. Most families use between two and four tanks per heating season.