Government Shutdown Averted With Senate Bill and Discovery of FEMA Money

Senators approve a bill to fund the government through November, punting the tough decisions. By Daniel Stone.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

After days of brinkmanship, members of Congress found a way to avert a government shutdown: lawmakers simply kicked the can of hard decisions down the road until November.

The Senate approved a plan in a bipartisan 79-12 vote that keeps the government running through Nov. 18, after federal disaster officials realized they had enough money to pay for hurricane, earthquake, and other disaster recoveries without needing an emergency $1 billion cash infusion.

Without having to pay the extra money for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster activities, the Senate eliminated a $1.5 billion cut that House Republicans had made to an energy-efficiency program targeted to carmakers. Democrats had opposed that cut.

The continuing resolution keeps federal spending at about 1 percent below last year’s rates, while delaying a decision on how much FEMA will need in actual monies to pay for 2011’s many disasters until November.

In the days leading up to the logjam, the debate had boiled over into frustration over the political brinkmanship of the past year. Twice over the past five months, both parties had pushed debates to the point of financial disaster. Both times Democrats had succumbed to GOP pressure to make concessions to avoid serious economic damage. Several days before Monday’s stopgap bill passed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid lamented the continual bickering.

“The Tea Party–driven House of Representatives has been so unreasonable in the past, I don’t know why they should suddenly be reasonable,” Reid told reporters, clearly exasperated.

Democrats had argued that cutting the budget to fund disaster relief would set a dangerous precedent. Speaking on the Senate floor Monday evening, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) accused House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of playing politics with disaster victims. Cantor and fellow Republicans countered that responsible budgeting involves cutting where possible to pay for things that are necessary.

Without FEMA’s realization that it could tide things over until Saturday, leaders seemed unwilling to budge, leading senior Hill staffers to brace for the economic and political effects of a short-term shutdown

One remaining question is whether the House, which is on recess this week, will return to session to pass the Senate bill before Saturday. As of Monday night, the House GOP leadership had not scheduled any session. Without the House agreeing to the Senate version, the government still would face a shutdown. One possibility being discussed was that the House would stage a voice vote to temporarily pass the bill, then return next week to formalize the approval.

During the weeks of debate, the White House stayed only peripherally involved. Press Secretary Jay Carney said that President Obama was concerned about FEMA potentially running out of money, and that the White House scrambled to secure more money for the agency. But administration officials stayed away from the political fray, leaving negotiations primarily to Senate and House leaders.