WASHINGTON – Homeowners flooded out by Katrina or shivering from high heating costs are caught in the crossfire of a North versus South battle among Republican senators.
Northern senators want $1 billion more for home heating subsidies to low-income families; southern senators are warning of dire consequences if Congress doesn't give the National Flood Insurance Program more borrowing authority.
Both are blocking the others' bills for leverage, and it likely will take action by the GOP leadership, when the Senate reconvenes next week, to break the deadlock.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has not publicly said she is responsible for the hold on the flood insurance bill, although her office says she is exerting what pressure she can to get a vote on her heating aid bill.
Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., admit they've put a legislative hold on adding $1 billion to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Coburn is demanding that other programs be cut to cover the $1 billion.
Sessions objected to the spending and what he said was an unfair division of LIHEAP money between northern states needing heating aid and southern states trying to help poor people stay cool in the summer.
It takes only a single senator to prevent the leadership from bringing up a bill. Sixty votes are needed to overcome such a parliamentary hurdle.
With energy prices soaring, partly a consequence of last summer's hurricanes, northern senators have pressed for a sharp expansion of the LIHEAP program, which has held steady at about $2 billion a year in recent years. They say that it now reaches only 5 million of 33 million eligible households and falls far short of meeting needs when energy costs are rising by more than one-third this winter.
"Maine in particular has been hit by one disaster after another, from high energy prices to huge snow storms, so we must ensure that those who need aid do not have to suffer further," Snowe said in a statement.
Snowe's blocked legislation would shift $1 billion already approved for LIHEAP in fiscal year 2007 to this year, with three-fourths of that designated as emergency spending that would be dispersed at the discretion of the president. She argued that, under LIHEAP formulas, warm-weather states would receive much of the remaining $250 million.
The need to move on the flood insurance bill is just as urgent because the National Flood Insurance Program, a part of FEMA, will have to stop paying claims early next month if Congress doesn't increase its power to borrow from the Treasury.
In response to the worst flood disaster in the nation's history, Congress boosted the NFIP's borrowing authority from $1.5 billion to $3.5 billion last September, and then to $18.5 billion in November.
This month, the Senate agreed to raise that further to $21.2 billion and the House to $20.8 billion. The Senate was expected to accede to the House bill, sending it to the president, before it ran into the legislative roadblock.
John Hart, spokesman for Coburn, said the senator plans to hold his ground on the issue of LIHEAP and fiscal responsibility. Congress spends billions on pork-barrel projects, Hart said, and Coburn believes that "if Congress decides this is a priority, then Congress should pay for it."
One possibility being discussed is a vote next week to overrule the objecting senators and bring the flood bill to the floor. If that happens, one of the amendments to that bill could be the measure to approve LIHEAP spending.