Congress Approves $1B to Assist Poor With Energy Costs

Federal aid to help the poor cope with energy costs will increase by $1 billion to more than $3 billion this year under legislation approved Thursday.

The House approved the proposal by a 287-128 vote, sending the measure to President Bush. He is expected to sign it. The House vote came a week after the Senate approved the additional money for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Proponents of the new spending, led by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, say the program's budget fails to meet the needs of the poor, especially given soaring heating and cooling costs.

It took months to get the legislation through Congress, in part because of resistance from fiscal conservatives opposed to new spending and from lawmakers from warm weather states who contend that the program favors cold weather regions.

"It's been a long and difficult road, but today marks a great victory for many families in Maine and across the country who are struggling to keep warm," Snowe said in a statement.

She noted that while the program's spending has remained relatively flat in recent years, the average household heating oil expenditure has more than doubled to $1,474 since 2001, and natural gas costs have gone from $465 to $1,000.

She said the program's buying power for a household's annual heating oil cost has gone from 50 percent to 19 percent in that period.

The $1 billion, on top of $2.1 billion already allotted for the current budget year, was obtained by transferring money originally intended for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

Under a compromise worked out in the Senate, 50 percent of the new money would be distributed according to an existing formula that would favor warm weather states while 50 percent would be spent at the discretion of the president.

The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, said Wednesday he supported this approach because Texas would get an extra $38 million, nearly doubling the state's total, to help the poor deal with the heat this summer.

The vote came shortly after the House approved legislation to provide $92 billion to cover Iraq, Afghanistan and Hurricane Katrina costs. That bill contains a provision allowing the president to spend up to $750 million to supplement the federal aid program.

Lawmakers suggested that with passage of the Snowe bill, this provision could be removed when the House and Senate negotiate the final version of the spending bill.

The Senate meanwhile, in its debate Thursday on the 2007 budget, agreed to an amendment offered by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., that would authorize $5.1 billion for the program. The actual spending level will not be determined until later in the year when Congress takes up annual appropriations bills.