WASHINGTON – The Senate has agreed to put an additional $1 billion this year into a program to help poor people with energy costs, but only after overcoming resistance from warm state senators who said those suffering from summer heat weren't getting their fair share.
The additional spending would increase to $3.1 billion the amount the federal government will have this year for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a decades-old program that subsidizes heating and cooling costs for poor families.
The legislation, which still must be considered by the House, passed by a voice vote Tuesday, but only after a lengthy debate between northern state senators, who said rising heating costs were creating a crisis in their states, and lawmakers from warmer states who claimed they were being shortchanged.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, D-Maine, sponsor of the legislation, said people in her state were going without food to pay for heating or, in more dire cases, being hospitalized with hypothermia. "Come to Maine and tell us about it being a mild winter," she said.
Snowe's original bill would have distributed $250 million under an existing formula that she said would mainly benefit warm-weather states. The remaining $750 million would have been labeled contingency funding and disbursed at the discretion of the president. The money was shifted from $1 billion that had been set aside for fiscal 2007.
But that wasn't acceptable to several of her Republican colleagues from the South and Southwest, who said that division would only exacerbate the program's traditional slant toward heating rather than cooling assistance.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said LIHEAP spending tends to be front-ended, with the money being used up in the winter months so nothing is left when the temperatures in Arizona climb over 100 degrees. He said the Arizona LIHEAP program reaches only 4 percent of those eligible for assistance.
Kyl said all the money should be decided by formula so that all states were guaranteed a fair share.
"We don't deny there is a need," said Rep. John Ensign, R-Nev. But "is it fair across the country or does it benefit some states and not other states?"
Snowe finally offered a compromise under which 50 percent of the new money would be distributed according to the existing formula, and the other 50 percent be considered emergency spending. That proposal was approved 68-31.
"We're denying the president the ability to respond to an emergency," she said of the Kyl proposal. "States are going to receive funding when there is no emergency?" she added. "How does that make sense?"
Congress authorized $5.1 billion for home energy aid as part of an energy bill passed last summer, but budgetary constraints pushed the final figure for fiscal 2006 down to $2.1 billion, largely unchanged from the $2 billion level that has held steady in recent years.
Last week Snowe successfully overcame opposition from conservative Republicans, led by Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who tried to kill the bill on the grounds that the spending was not offset by cuts in other programs.
Federal assistance for home energy costs, dating back to the oil crisis of the 1970s, now reaches some 5 million families. Proponents of expanding the program say the $2 billion budget doesn't go very far when there are some 33 million households, spending about $55 billion a year in energy costs, eligible for the program.