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House rejects government funding bill as shutdown looms

Conservative Republicans in the House say the spending level is too high, and Democrats refuse to accept cuts to offset FEMA aid to disaster victims.

September 22, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner speaks about job creation at a meeting of the National Automobile Dealers Assn. in Washington.
Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner speaks about job creation at a meeting… (Win McNamee, Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington — The threat of a government shutdown intensified as the House surprised its Republican leadership and rejected a bill to fund the government that required cuts in programs to pay for aid for victims of Hurricane Irene and other disasters.

The legislation was narrowly defeated Wednesday after a tense afternoon of vote counting. Conservatives voted against the bill because they thought its spending level was too high, and Democrats rejected it because of the requirement for cuts.

The spending bill is needed to keep the government running through Nov. 18; current spending authority stops at the end of September.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) had hoped to avoid another budget battle in the wake of the summer's debt ceiling fight and a near-shutdown of the government in April that caused voters to sour on Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

The rebuke gives new currency to Senate Democrats' efforts to fund disaster aid without cuts elsewhere. Congress has just days to resolve the impasse as lawmakers are expected to recess Friday for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana next week.

"They're threatening to shut down the government to get what they want," Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, said of the GOP-led House.

House Republican leaders huddled late Wednesday to consider their options. It is unlikely they will be able to persuade their right flank to support a bill with spending levels higher than they want. Instead, Boehner will probably be forced to rely on Democrats for votes.

"We continue to work on a responsible plan that can pass the House," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said the rejection of the Republican approach left the GOP leaders few options.

"Now it's time to pass the Senate disaster aid bill," she said in a Twitter post.

Disaster funding typically draws bipartisan support, but this year Republican leaders insisted that any supplemental emergency funds be offset by spending cuts.

After a year of floods, tornadoes and recent hurricanes and wildfires, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster fund is about to run out — as soon as Monday. Already, FEMA has prioritized its remaining resources to provide immediate food, water and debris removal for recent disasters, while longer-term building projects are on hold.

To pay for additional aid needed to cover victims of Hurricane Irene and other recent disasters, the House bill targeted a loan program for alternative-energy vehicle manufacturing. Democrats opposed cutting funds for the program because they said it was on the forefront of creating green jobs.

"It's with great sadness that we even have to have a debate about it," Pelosi said on the House floor.

An hour before the vote, GOP leadership did not know whether the bill would pass. Conservatives in the House resisted the overall level of government spending for fiscal 2012 as too high. That level had been agreed to as part of the summer debt ceiling deal, but was $24 billion more than House Republicans had approved in their own budget.

"If I put this to my constituents, 9 to 1, they'd say no," Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said. "This is just not enough, we can do better."

Boehner made a plea to his rank-and-file members to unify around the legislation. Behind closed doors, Boehner told lawmakers that a failure to pass the bill would only make it more difficult to achieve the level of spending Republicans wanted.

Democrats objected to the disaster provision. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the whip, had been in several conversations with his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), to gauge how many Democrats might support the bill. But Democratic leaders urged a no vote and only six Democrats voted for the measure.

Forty-eight Republicans also opposed the measure, which failed, 195 to 230.

Even the Senate bill faces a difficult route. The Senate last week passed a larger package of FEMA aid without offsetting spending cuts — with the support of 10 Republican senators. But it is unclear whether those senators will continue supporting the disaster package now.

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), a champion of the aid package, began calling out some of those 10 senators, pressuring them not to change their position.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

Alexa Vaughn and Kathleen Hennessey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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