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Congress Faces New Round of Spending Fights

Lawmakers Brace for Clashes Over Disaster Relief Funding, Appropriations

Douglas Graham/Roll Call
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (center) inspects earthquake damage in his Virginia district in August. Disaster funding is becoming a flash point in the fiscal 2012 spending debate.

Battle-weary from the year’s constant spending fights and hyper-aware of stagnating job numbers, Congressional leaders are working to avoid a rehash of the same disputes in the impending debate to fund the government for the coming year.

However, serious obstacles remain, including a potential clash over disaster relief funding and the fact that a deal must be completed in less than four weeks. The fight to finish last April’s stopgap spending bill, set to expire Sept. 30, was the opening act for the debt ceiling debate that dominated the House and Senate floors for months. In both instances, lawmakers brought the government to the brink of financial calamity, narrowly avoiding a shutdown in April and a debt default in August.

When it comes to the fiscal 2012 appropriations, the task should be easier. The debt limit bill set spending levels for the next two fiscal years — requiring $7 billion in cuts from 2011 levels — and even some of the staunchest representatives of each party seem less inclined to pick a fight.

“While all of us would like to have seen a lower discretionary appropriations ceiling for the upcoming fiscal year, the debt limit agreement did set a level of spending that is a real cut from the current year level. I believe it is in our interest to enact into law full-year appropriations bills at this new lower level,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) wrote to his colleagues in an August letter. “It is critical that in the days and months ahead we do our best to minimize unnecessary uncertainty.”

But disaster funding is quickly becoming a flash point. Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and his home-state counterpart, John Hoeven (R), circulated a letter last week to top appropriators “stressing the need for supplemental funding for disaster programs” in the pending fiscal year appropriations bills, an aide to Conrad confirmed.

In the wake of Hurricane Irene’s path of destruction up the East Coast and with the Midwest struggling to rebuild after last spring’s floods and tornadoes, some Members are likely to push for more funds for the cash-strapped Federal Emergency Management Agency. The debt ceiling bill included a little-noticed provision that would allow Congress to increase spending caps by about $11 billion next year to pay for disasters, and the White House requested $5.2 billion for disasters last week, not including costs for Irene. Tuesday’s Senate Appropriations subcommittee markup for the Homeland Security budget could reveal just how dramatically Senators will advocate for increased disaster spending.

The sticking point could be on how the relief is paid for if Republicans still press to have the disaster funds offset. Cantor, whose home state was hit by both Irene and a 5.8-magnitude earthquake in August, has been advocating that the relief should be paid for by cutting other programs.

Senate Democrats could increase pressure on the House to pass separate emergency supplemental legislation because they believe a fight on the floor over a clean disaster relief bill is more politically salient than one on a broader appropriations bill.

An emergency bill could come to the Senate floor in the second week of the work period, aides suggested. But the timing of any legislation is dependent on whether Democratic leaders press forward with a jobs bill to build on President Barack Obama’s speech on jobs this week.

Once any dispute over disaster money is resolved, that still leaves lawmakers with the fight over just how to achieve the mandatory $7 billion in cuts in next year’s appropriations. The debt limit agreement creates what aides call a “firewall” between security and nonsecurity spending, which helps protect the traditionally Republican interests of defense and the Democratic interests of domestic spending by ensuring that cuts are not lopsided one way or another. But determining the specific cuts is probably the most significant obstacle facing lawmakers in trying to get a bill to the president’s desk.

The other major problem is time. The House has only 11 workdays until the end of the fiscal year. Neither the House nor the Senate is slated to be in session the week before the Sept. 30 deadline to keep the government funded into the next fiscal year.

“We’re so late — FY [2012] begins at the end of next month, so it probably will be difficult to have a normal appropriations process. They’ll have to be clumped together,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a news conference after the debt ceiling deal passed.

Just how long that continuing resolution might stretch is unclear. A Senate Democratic leadership aide said leaders were looking for the “most permanent” solution possible for the upcoming fiscal year, even as the Appropriations Committee forges ahead on marking up individual bills.

A Senate Appropriations Committee aide added, “The committee intends to move as many bills as possible in the next few weeks in order to make them available for consideration by the full Senate. ... It will not be possible to enact all 12 annual appropriations bills prior to the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. As a result, a short-term continuing resolution will likely be needed.”

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