Even disaster aid is swept up in clashes on spending

Posted Sept. 26, 2011, at 9:32 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Once again, Congress has delayed until the last minute approving funds to keep the federal government running. And once again, lawmakers are giving their constituents more reasons to be disgusted and alienated.

The public already holds a dismal view of Congress. The summer’s debt-limit dispute shook public confidence on a scale like the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, GOP pollster William McInturff found. He said that consequent voter anger could result in “unstable and unpredictable political outcomes.”

In recent days, lawmakers have been at it again.

The latest Capitol Hill clash involves a tiny piece of the federal budget, replenishing the government’s disaster aid fund. Most Republicans wanted any new money given to that fund offset by other budget cuts; Democrats said such offsets are not needed for emergencies.

The emergency money is part of ordinary funding legislation that would keep the government running through Nov. 18. If the bill is not passed by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year, federal operations could begin shutting down. Thanks to a last-minute agreement Monday, that now appears highly unlikely.

The fund had been expected to be depleted by Tuesday, but on Monday officials said it probably has enough money to last through this fiscal year, which ends Friday. That news appeared to end the impasse, as the Senate on Monday approved the stopgap spending bill, 79-12, for the next fiscal year. The House of Representatives is expected to go along.

But the deadlock left an impression.

If this sounds like a rerun of last spring’s shutdown showdown, and the summer’s debt-ceiling brinkmanship, it was. And there’s probably more to come later this fall.

“This problem is probably not going to get straightened out until 2012,” said Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University.

Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe in a press release Monday said that “an utter lack of understanding what the American people want Congress to achieve” is on display in Washington.

“Mainers are tired of the unending partisan crises that threaten to shut down our government,” she said in the release. “It is our obligation and irrefutable duty to do the job we were sent here to do. … The House and Senate must resolve their differences and I call on the leaders of all sides to continue working out their disagreements so we can move past these self-inflicted stalemates and focus on creating an economy that will put unemployed Americans back to work.”

Most politicians, said the experts, are likely to see an angry electorate next year.

A McClatchy-Marist poll, conducted Sept. 13-14, found 26 percent approved of the job Republicans were doing in office, while 30 percent approved of Democrats’ performance.

“Congress for some time has been seen as a discordant voice,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. That’s been especially true since this summer, when the showdown over raising the nation’s debt limit was resolved hours before the government faced default on its debt for the first time in history.

The latest chapter in the stalemate saga began last week. The House of Representatives was expected to easily pass the stopgap funding, which included $3.65 billion for disaster aid. About $1.5 billion was offset by cutting funds for an auto research program popular with many Democrats.

Republicans hold 242 seats, with 218 needed for a majority. Republicans, figuring they would lose a few dozen conservatives who wanted further spending cuts, had counted on Democrats to pass the funding measure.

Despite strong pleas to stick with the party line, 48 Republicans sided with Democrats in opposition, and the bill was defeated. Friday, the House passed a tweaked version that cut another $100 million.

Both sides insisted they were reflecting the public mood.

Rebellious Republicans, many elected with support of the conservative tea party movement, said they had been sent to Washington to cut spending dramatically, not to fashion compromises with Democrats.

“The dynamic now in the Republican caucus is from the ground up, rather than the top down,” said Michael Franc, vice president of government studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy-research center in Washington.

Low approval ratings don’t bother them, Franc said. “They were elected to cut the size of government, and they see the low ratings as reflecting voter unease with the direction of the country, not with the members,” he said.

Democrats, too, insist they’re on the right political track.

“We strongly oppose the notion that efforts to help Americans rebuild their lives after floods, hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters should be put on hold until Congress can agree on offsetting reductions in spending,” said Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Staying obstinate could be a “dangerous game,” said Burdett Loomis, professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

“The GOP in 2010 campaigned against the Congress, so [the institution’s] low ratings were a boon,” he said. “Now, however, they’ve chosen destructive tactics because hostage-holding has worked.”

Democrats sense GOP vulnerability.

“At some point policy-based hostage taking has to be challenged, and this seems like a favorable time,” Loomis said.

Meantime, the impasse continues, and more deadlines loom.

If the current stopgap funding measure passes, another must be approved by Nov. 18. Congress has until Dec. 23 to act on the bipartisan supercommittee seeking ways to cut at least $1.2 trillion from deficits over the next decade, or automatic cuts will be triggered.

“We don’t know how this will translate into voting behavior next year,” said Baker of Rutgers, “but if it’s a plague on both houses, it’ll look like 2010 again — no consistent narrative.”

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