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Senate Approves $3B Heating Aid

The Senate has voted to set aside more than $3 billion in federal aid to help low-income families meet expected record heating bills this winter and next.

For this winter, the Senate cleared $2.1 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program on Wednesday as part of a spending bill funding programs in the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education departments through next September.

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."

Reed and other Northeast lawmakers were angry that an additional $2 billion in heating aid was stripped from a $453 billion Pentagon bill. The measure 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 dropped the fuel aid and 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.