By ANDREW TAYLOR, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - House Republicans grappled Thursday with ways to revive a must pass measure to provide billions of dollars in much-needed disaster relief and prevent a government shutdown at the end of next week.
GOP leaders scheduled a closed-door meeting with the rank and file to sort through options to resolve the problem in the wake of Wednesday's 230-195 rejection of a $3.7 billion disaster aid measure that was attached to a stopgap funding bill to keep the government running into mid-November. The loss came at the hands of Democrats and tea party Republicans.
But time is 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."
Now the question confronting GOP leaders including Speaker John Boehner of Ohio is whether to push the legislation to the left or the right in hopes of passing it through the House and reaching agreement with the Democratic Senate before disaster aid runs out for victims of Hurricane Irene and other disasters early next week.
Boehner said that rejection of the measure could backfire on tough-on-spending conservatives.
"They could vote `no' but what they're in essence doing is they're voting to spend more money," Boehner said Thursday. "Because that's exactly what they'll have."
Before Wednesday's loss, the House GOP seemed likely to score a win over Senate Democrats pressing a larger aid package.
The House demise of the measure was caused partly by Democrats opposed to $1.5 billion in cuts to a government loan program to help car companies build fuel-efficient vehicles. On the other side, almost 50 GOP conservatives felt the underlying bill permits spending at too high a rate.
The defeat appears to give Democrats greater leverage in stripping the cut to the carmaker subsidy and could lead to a deal with Senate Democrats on a larger disaster aid package.
Boehner and his leadership team are back at the drawing board as they seek to make sure the government doesn't shut down on Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year. More immediate is the risk that the government's main disaster relief program could run out of money by Tuesday or so.
One option is to find a different spending cut to offset $1 billion worth of immediate disaster aid needed to make sure victims aren't cut off next week. Another might be to drop the idea of an offset altogether.
Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said Thursday that the speaker has yet to decide on a course of action.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has only a few days' worth of aid remaining in its disaster relief fund, lawmakers said. The agency already has held up thousands of longer-term rebuilding projects - repairs to sewer systems, parks, roads and bridges, for example - to conserve money to provide emergency relief to victims of recent disasters.
The looming shortage has been apparent for months, and the Obama White House was slow to request additional money.
The underlying stopgap funding measure would finance the government through Nov. 18 to give lawmakers more time to try to reach agreement on the 12 unfinished spending bills needed to run government agencies on a day-to-day basis for the 2012 budget year.
Forty-eight Republicans broke with GOP leaders on the vote; six Democrats voted for the measure. Some of the Republicans came from manufacturing states like Michigan, which benefit from the carmaker loan program.
The underlying stopgap measure was opposed by conservative Republicans unhappy with the spending rates set by the measure, which are in line with levels set by last month's budget and debt pact with President Barack Obama. That measure provides about 2 percent more money for Cabinet agency budgets than Republicans proposed when passing a nonbinding budget plan in April. More than 50 Republicans recently wrote to Boehner calling on him to stick to the earlier GOP budget.
Senate Democrats, who muscled through a stand-alone $6.9 billion disaster aid measure last week, called upon House GOP leaders to add additional disaster funding to whatever future stopgap measure rises from the rubble of Wednesday's vote. Unless Congress passes stopgap legislation by midnight on Sept. 30, much of the government will shut down.
"Consider making the disaster relief more robust" in the next bill, said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. "Please talk to the Democrats."
Landrieu said FEMA Director Craig Fugate told her that the agency's disaster relief fund may run dry Tuesday. That would mean that there's no money to provide shelter, cash assistance or other help to victims of Irene, thousands of fires across Texas and flooding in Northeastern states.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)