Spending debate comes to forefront again
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WASHINGTON -- One crisis averted; on to the next.
The day after Congress managed to avoid a government shutdown -- again -- Republicans and Democrats stared ahead Tuesday at major fights over spending that underscore a deep divide that is sure to define the fast-approaching national elections.
Monday night, lawmakers had postponed their dispute over whether billions for disaster aid must be paid for with cuts elsewhere in the budget, finessing a pact to keep the government operating.
But tea party-driven Republicans are still insisting on significant spending cuts this fall, with some arguing that a hard-fought congressional agreement this summer to fund the government at $1.043 trillion in 2012 was too generous. Democrats, many of whom complained of too many concessions and reductions in this year's showdowns, are furiously trying to protect government programs.
The next skirmish will be over how and where to spend the new year's budget, with a Nov. 18 deadline for that legislation.
President Barack Obama's $447 billion jobs proposal that would cut payroll taxes and increase spending on school construction and other infrastructure has already divided the parties. But the next really big deal is the special 12-member bipartisan supercommittee and whether it can produce a plan to slash $1.5 trillion in the next 10 years by Nov. 23 -- the day before Thanksgiving.
These fights will unfold against the backdrop of a feeble economy that Mr. Obama is desperate to jump-start as he pushes for a second term, and an exasperated electorate that looks at Washington and dislikes what it sees.
Lawmakers also will be under pressure from political factions demanding that they stand firm for party beliefs. "You have to support getting control of excessive spending and debt," said longtime Republican operative Sal Russo, founder of the Tea Party Express, a well-funded wing of the populist movement. "Are you helping to solve the problem or making it worse?"
Shortly after Senate votes Monday, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., thanked party leaders "for helping the Democratic Party find the backbone it needed to fight and win this debate."
The disaster aid dispute that threatened to partially shut down the government this weekend was resolved relatively quickly after a standoff between Democrats and Republicans. But the fight was an unpleasant reminder to most Americans of the last-minute maneuvering in April to avert a shutdown and the August showdown over raising the nation's borrowing authority that left financial markets unnerved.
This time, Democrats had spent weeks demanding more disaster aid in response to hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters that had battered Americans from Vermont to Missouri. Republicans had said additional aid had to be offset by cuts in energy-related programs that Democrats favored. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had warned that its accounts would be out of money early this week.
A solution to keep the government operating seemed uncertain last week.
Then word from the Obama administration that FEMA wasn't in as dire financial straits as many had feared proved to be the answer.
On Saturday, the administration told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., that FEMA could last until Thursday with the money it had. Specifically, an unknown contractor had come in under budget, freeing some $40 million, said Democratic and Republican congressional aides.
On Sunday morning, Mr. Reid reached out to the staff of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, informing them of FEMA's more promising financial outlook, and proposed two bare-bones emergency spending bills -- one to keep the government operating for a week and another until Nov. 18. Mr. Boehner's office contacted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., about the developments and proposal.
Mr. McConnell's office made a quick check with the upper chamber's Republican vote counter, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, on whether such a plan would fly with GOP members.
Within hours Monday, Democrats and Republicans had agreed on an emergency spending bill to avoid a government shutdown.
FEMA would get $2.65 billion in disaster relief assistance in a one-week bill.
The House, on recess this week, probably will back the one-week measure by voice vote Thursday and vote separately next week to keep the government running through Nov. 18.
Mr. McConnell, the GOP leader, said the "entire fire-drill was completely unnecessary."
First Published September 28, 2011 12:00 am