It's a little early to be talking about a government shutdown possibility, but at the moment, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Republican leaders in the House appear to be on a collision course over how to fund disaster relief, one that could shutter the federal government in the next two weeks if a compromise is not found. And none appears to be in the works.
The current stopgap funding bill, called a Continuing Resolution (CR), expires at midnight on September 30, but lawmakers are scheduled to be out next week in observance of Rosh Hashanah, thereby speeding up the legislative clock. Congressional leaders know they have to use the CR, considered a must-pass bill, as a vehicle for disaster relief, as it is the least likely to be blocked.
Even more pressing, FEMA says it will run out of money by September 26, if Congress does not at least approve a chunk of emergency funds as soon as possible.
Democrats and Republicans are locking horns over how much disaster aid to approve now, a stand-off that has House Majority Leader Eric Cantor accusing Reid on Tuesday of "playing politics" and Reid returning fire, accusing the Virginia Republican of "pettiness" and House Republicans, in general, of "not keeping their word."
At issue is about $3.2 billion in fiscal 2012 funding for FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and agricultural disaster assistance. Reid chose to cobble together a bill that includes full fiscal 2011 and 2012 funding to the tune of $6.9 billion. It narrowly passed the chamber last week with the assistance of 10 Republicans. The House, however, includes full FY 2011 funding ($1 billion), but only part of the Administration's request for 2012 ( $2.7 billion). As well, the House pays for part of the disaster relief by cutting an Energy Department loan program.
It's unclear how members can bridge this divide, especially with both sides digging in and taking a "my way or the highway" approach, and with some Senate Republicans who supported Reid's approach now wavering.
The House is scheduled to pass it's bill Wednesday and head out of town Thursday. Reid has said he intends to try to amend that bill to plus up disaster aid to $6.9 billion. Whether or not he will have the votes, again, remains to be seen. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who's state was ravaged by a tornado in May, would not commit Tuesday to supporting Reid's move, as he did previously.
"I intend to look carefully at what the House is offering and see if there's any room there to do any more than they may be proposing," the former House leader said, adding that he intends to "look at the timing when we get it...We're certainly going to need more money between now and the end of the year than the (House's) CR will provide for disaster relief. And so there are a number of people I want to talk about this, including the leaders in the House, before I make a final decision."
Cantor said any government shutdown would not be the fault of the GOP, rather, "It will be on Leader Reid's shoulders. There's nothing but politics going on in this." The House Whip, Kevin McCarthy of California, said the votes are not there in the House for passage of the Senate's bill.
Reid called the comments "illogical," and added, "We're not going to cave in on this."
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell tried to calm the restive waters, assuring reporters that the kerfuffle would be resolved before any disastrous consequences. Republicans fear that any shutdown, as in 1995, would be on their shoulders in the minds of voters, Cantor's comments aside.
"We always respond to disasters in this country, and we're going to respond to this one in an appropriate way based on documentation that has been received," the Kentucky Republican predicted, adding, "Exactly how we get from where we are to the end of the trail by Thursday night, I couldn't tell you, but I can confidently tell you we are going to respond to those in need."
McConnell threw his considerable support behind the House approach, saying there would be plenty of time to pass more funding through the regular appropriations process, a move that could weigh heavily with those 10 Republicans who originally sided with Reid.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved the full FY 2012 disaster aid request from the Administration as part of its annual spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security, under which FEMA falls. Reid chose to pull that money out, in an unusual move, and dare Republicans to oppose him in the wake of multiple disasters hitting the U.S., from floods to fires.
Reid emerged from a caucus lunch Tuesday with a much less sanguine view of the situation than his GOP counterpart.
"I heard the reports that Senator McConnell said there will be no shutdown. I'm not that sure. I'm not that sure, because the Tea Party-driven House of Representatives has been so unreasonable...I don't know why they should suddenly be reasonable now," the Nevada Democrat ventured.
Reid said the funding the House is expected to approve Wednesday, with no Democratic support, is "a pittance" that will merely fund disasters "for weeks."
But Republicans insisted that Congress would, in the long run, approve the money needed.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, told reporters, "The steps are in place, through the continuing resolution and through the regular appropriations process, for Congress to fully fund disaster aid."