WASHINGTON — The threatened government shutdown that could have started at the end of the week was averted Monday when the one hurdle to passing a short-term spending bill — funding for FEMA — became a non-issue.
The fight was over increased spending for FEMA’s disaster relief fund, which has been running low on money because of a string of disasters over the last few months. Republicans offered a plan that would have given FEMA $1 billion for the current fiscal year, which ends Friday, but it came with a cut to green energy grant programs to offset the increased FEMA funding. Democrats wanted a clean increase with more funding.
The underlying issue is a short-term spending measure that will fund the government for another seven weeks while Congress works on passing a full 2012 budget. That bill has the equivalent of $2.65 billion in annual funding for FEMA, and there is no need for offsets because it was an amount agreed to under spending caps passed in the summer debt limit deal.
The argument essentially centered on how to fund FEMA for the rest of the week, since the current fiscal year, the one for which FEMA originally said it would need the increased funding, ends on Sept. 30. So when FEMA came out Monday and said it would have enough money to last through Friday, it paved the way for the U.S. Senate to pass its version of the short-term spending bill with funding levels both parties agreed to and no unpopular spending offsets associated with them.
The Senate passed the bill Monday night and gave the House through early next week to take up and pass the legislation. Both Minnesota senators voted for the plan.
“This compromise legislation should satisfy House Republicans,” Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the floor before the final vote. “And it satisfies Democrats.”
This fight over the short-term spending bill (called a stop-gap measure) is just a prelude to what the battle over the full 2012 budget is going to look like.
The parties are beholden to the spending caps passed as part of the debt limit deal, but that doesn’t mean Congress will have an easy job passing a budget that simply adheres to them without cutting further spending. Many Republicans still want further cuts (24 House Republicans voted against the stop-gap spending bill, and 12 did so in the Senate), meaning if there is any hope of passing a final plan, at least some Democrats will need to agree to spending lower than what they would ideally get.
And, if the last two political fights in Washington are any indication, policy provisions attached to the budget bills could threaten any potential budget agreement the sides might reach.
During the fight over reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, provisions related to unionization and a rural air service program lead to a partial shutdown of the agency over the summer. And during this FEMA battle, Democrats were opposed to planned Republican cuts to green energy grants for car manufactures and to a loan program that helped fund the much-maligned Solyndra firm in exchange for the FEMA funding. If similar policy provisions are attached to a final budget deal, it’s likely to stir up more trouble during the months ahead.
Complicating everything is the deficit reduction supercommittee, which is scheduled to release its final plan right around the time this stop-gap measure runs out. Partisan angst over that plan could spill over into the budget process and threaten to derail everything once again.
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.