WASHINGTON – Millions of low-income families will face a bleak winter because Congress failed to deliver home-heating funds, Northeast lawmakers warned Thursday.
"It was the wrong choice for the American people in this cold holiday season," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who led a Senate fight for fuel assistance.
Home-heat advocates had been hopeful as late as Wednesday night that the Senate would approve two spending bills providing $4.1 billion in fuel assistance. But $2 billion in energy aid was stripped from a defense appropriations bill along with a GOP-backed provision to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
That left just $2.1 billion for this winter's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, slightly below last year's funding.
"It looked like Congress was going to do the right thing, but it never happened," said Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, which represents state agencies that distribute heat aid.
In a separate budget-cutting bill Wednesday, the Senate approved $1 billion to help families heat their homes next winter. That money is stalled in the House.
All told, the Senate on Wednesday passed $3 billion in heat assistance for this winter and next.
"The Republican budget left America's neediest families out in the cold this winter," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said. "The priorities for working Americans were trumped by profits for oil company executives."
Senators, however, will have another chance to boost heating aid.
The Senate is expected to vote next month on $2 billion in supplemental funding for heating assistance.
Sens. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Thursday they won a pledge for the vote from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Last summer, Kennedy said, Congress authorized $5.1 billion heating aid in the sweeping Energy Policy Act but then failed to follow through on the spending blueprint.
As the Arctic drilling fight flared in the Senate, home-heating aid was used as a sweetener by the GOP to win votes, Reed said. "It was a casualty of that battle," he said.
Noting record energy costs, Wolfe said many local heat aid agencies will run out of funds soon because of a flood of applicants.
Northern state lawmakers will try to boost funding for heating assistance when Congress returns from its holiday recess, Reed said.
About 5 million households nationwide receive the funds.