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House battle looms over disaster relief. When did that become partisan?

Senate Republicans broke ranks this week, allowing Democrats to pass a nearly $7 billion bill to shore up federal disaster relief and setting up a battle with the House and even the prospect of a government shutdown.

Between hurricanes, floods, wildfires, blizzards, tornadoes, and a rare East Coast earthquake, the US has declared disaster areas in all but two states this year alone, and the funds to sustain recovery efforts are running out.

In past years, Congress would have dubbed such disasters an emergency – a label that exempts spending from budgetary constraints – and paid for it on credit. But the GOP takeover of the House in 2011 and an ongoing tea party insurgency have sharpened partisan differences even on an issue as traditionally bipartisan as disaster relief.

House Republicans are proposing $3.7 billion in disaster aid, with the first $1 billion to be offset by cutting a loan guarantee program for more fuel-efficient cars. Democrats oppose both the strategy of requiring offsets for emergency disaster relief – a standard they say that Republicans did not apply to funding wars in Iraq or Afghanistan – and the choice of an alternative energy program to take the hit.

The measure now faces a full House vote next week, as part of an interim spending bill to fund government for the 2012 fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1. Without this continuing resolution, the government would be forced to shut down.

With Congress still reeling from bitter fights over FY 2011 spending and over raising the national debt limit in the spring and summer, leaders have been discounting the prospect of another near-shutdown this fall. But neither side counted on the deep ideological divisions between parties and within the GOP on spending to also apply to disaster relief.

Some Senate GOP conservatives, led by the Tea Party Caucus, tried to maintain a similar line. But most Republicans balked. On Thursday, the Senate voted 20 to 78 to reject an amendment by Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky to offset funding for federal disaster aid through cuts to foreign spending.

“Increasing our national debt at a time when our country is in financial dire straits is irresponsible and a dereliction of our responsibility to the American people,” he said in a statement after the Sept. 15 vote.

But for many Senate Republicans, there’s also a pull to avoid alienating independents and other voters by blocking disaster relief, however ideologically pure the cause. With only 10 seats to defend, compared with 23 for Democrats, Republicans head into campaign 2012 with an edge – and a real possibility of taking back the Senate.

“It’s clear that there is now a contingent of House Republicans that is willing to be more dogmatic and stringent with all kinds of spending, even when the costs to the party could be quite high,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey.

“They’re taking on issues like disaster relief, but Senate Republicans are beginning to buckle,” he adds. “They’re in range of taking back the Senate and the White House, and they’re saying: Why would we want to say something like this now?”

Moreover, GOP governors hard-hit by storms and floods, such as Gov. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey, are urging Congress to move quickly on boosting disaster relief.

“It’s a lot easier to sit in the office in the [House] Rayburn Building and say, ‘Let’s have offsets,’ than it is to be a governor driving around Trenton,” Mr. Zelizer adds.

Congress is on track to settle this issue by Sept. 22, when both the House and Senate expect to leave town for a break.

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