WASHINGTON — With the economy sputtering, the warring factions of Congress headed toward gridlock Thursday night over the typically noncontroversial steps of delivering disaster aid or even keeping the government from shutting down.
Senate Democrats signaled they’ll reject a House move to try to force a smaller aid package upon them and partially pay for it with cuts to programs Democrats insist create jobs. A top Senate aide revealed the strategy on condition of anonymity.
The battle erupting on Capitol Hill sends a discouraging sign as a bitterly divided Washington looks ahead to more significant debates on President Barack Obama’s jobs plan and efforts by a congressional supercommittee to slash deficits.
The maneuvering started as Republicans controlling the House moved to resurrect a $3.7 billion disaster aid package after an embarrassing loss Wednesday. Instead of reaching out to Democrats, House GOP leaders looked to persuade wayward tea party Republicans to change their votes and help approve the assistance — and try to force Senate Democrats into a corner with little choice but to accept cuts to clean energy programs they favor.
“We’re fed up with this,” said Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. “They know what it takes for us to extend [stopgap funding] and keep the government in business. And this brinksmanship … we’re sick of it.”
Unless Congress acts by midnight next Friday, much of the government will shut down. More immediate is the threat that the government’s main disaster aid account will run dry early next week.
The battling came as the stock market absorbed heavy losses and pessimism about the economy deepened. The arguing was reminiscent of the poisonous atmosphere of this summer rather than lawmakers’ more recent promises to work together to find common ground where possible.
Obama hardly sounded conciliatory as he pressed for action on his jobs bill at an Ohio River bridge that links Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s home state of Ohio with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky. Echoing Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall, Obama intoned, “Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge.”
In Washington, Wednesday’s embarrassing 230-195 defeat of the disaster aid bill in the GOP-majority House exposed divisions within the Republican Party that demonstrated the tenuous grip that Boehner has on the chamber. Forty-eight Republicans opposed the measure, chiefly because it would permit spending at the rate approved in last month’s debt pact between Boehner and Obama, a level that is unpopular with tea party lawmakers.
GOP leaders said they hoped to win a vote on a largely identical measure by convincing wayward Republicans that the alternative was to give Democrats a better deal by adding more disaster aid or decoupling it from $1.5 billion in spending cuts.
“What we voted on yesterday was the best deal Republicans could get and it can only go downhill from here,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. “So we should try to revote again on the same bill we had yesterday, vote on it again, pass it this time, or if not we’ll have to make concessions that would help the Democrats.”
Democrats appeared poised to again oppose the legislation if, as expected, the $1.5 billion in accompanying spending cuts would come from an Energy Department loan program that helps automobile and parts manufacturers retool their plants to build fuel-efficient vehicles.
House leaders say they are considering taking $100 million from a loan guarantee program for renewable energy projects approved under the 2009 stimulus law. Congress set aside $2.4 billion in case some of the loans went bad, such as a $528 million loan to now-bankrupt Solyndra Inc., a California-based solar panel maker effusively praised by Obama.
An Energy Department official said the reserve fund has at least $100 million in it. The program expires on Sept. 30.
Time is running short. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Thursday that the government’s main disaster aid account is “running on fumes” and could be tapped out as early as early next week. She called on Congress to quickly resolve the problem or risk delays in getting disaster projects approved.
“I’m hopeful that Congress will work this out in the next couple of days,” Napolitano told The Associated Press as she flew to Joplin, Mo., to view tornado damage. “We have stretched this as far as it can go. We are scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
As of Thursday morning, there was just $212 million in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund. The failed House measure contains $3.7 billion. A rival Senate measure muscled through that chamber last week by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., with the help of 10 Republicans, would provide $6.9 billion.
Republicans hope that if the House passes the measure, Senate Democrats will have little choice but to accept it.
The drama and battling over disaster aid and stopgap spending is unusual. Such measures usually pass routinely since the alternative is shutting down much of the government and denying help to victims of floods, hurricanes and other disasters.
The current imbroglio illustrates the difficulty lawmakers are sure to have when trying to address tougher problems. The toughest task confronts the so-called supercommittee, which is supposed to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in deficit savings over the coming decade to implement the August budget and debt pact.
The panel had its third public meeting Thursday, again exposing differences between Republicans and Democrats on taxes. The panel has until Thanksgiving to produce legislation — and there’s no sign yet of much progress toward agreement.
Before Thursday night’s eruption, the Senate had had an unusually productive week as it voted Thursday to help American workers who fall victim to foreign competition. The move to renew expired portions of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which provides retraining and financial support for workers adversely affected by trade, sets the stage for Obama to submit trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.