Harry Reid will challenge the ability of Republicans to hold out on disaster relief spending against the wishes of GOP Governors and representatives in the region affected by Hurricane Irene, by introducing a $6 billion bill without offsets to replenish FEMA accounts for fiscal year 2012.

The Senate action would replenish depleted accounts at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has begun prioritizing aid. But the move escalates a confrontation with House Republicans, whose leaders have resisted allocating more money for emergency aid without comparable offsets elsewhere in the budget. The Senate could vote within days.

“Our people are suffering,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “We need to get this relief funding to the American people as quickly as we can.”

Republican Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, would not say Wednesday whether he could support the Senate measure, which offers almost twice as much disaster funding as a House-passed bill.

“I am not for holding up any money,” said Cantor, reiterating that he raced home from a visit to the Middle East after a rare magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck his central Virginia district last month. “I just think we can act responsibly.”

The House passed a minimal bill with $2.6 billion in disaster relief back in June, which offset disaster funding with a cut to funding for alternative-fuel vehicles, something coveted by the White House, along with Homeland Security grants for firefighters, which would defeat the purpose of emergency management spending by cutting other emergency management spending, IMO. The White House has already calculated needs for FEMA in FY2012 in the $6-$7 billion range.

So this is a fairly bold move by Reid, which he plans to move to the Senate floor next week. Under the terms of the debt limit deal, emergency spending can be granted without offsets, pushing above the spending cap for the next fiscal year. So he’s going for it. And Cantor, as you can see, is being very noncommittal, backing off his earlier demands of no funding without offsets. Not only does he risk public opinion, but there are GOP members in the path of the hurricane’s damage who need the money to flow freely, lest they risk a severe backlash.

House Republicans from flood-damaged areas are rejecting that position, saying that helping people whose lives have been upended by the storm should take precedent over managing the budget deficit.

The reaction is particularly noteworthy because it is coming from members of the House Republican freshman class, a group that swept into office last year on a platform of reducing the federal debt and the size of government.

The debate is a sensitive one for rank-and-file lawmakers, because it forces them to choose between the agenda of a party leader and the immediate needs of their districts.

My guess is there will be a strategic pullback. The disaster relief will pass without offsets. Cantor said something else in his statement yesterday, about the upcoming appropriations bills, which expire at the end of the month. “I appreciate Leader Reid’s concern for the people of my district and those facing these terrible disasters across the country, and hope we can work quickly and responsibly to provide any funding needed immediately, as well as to navigate through the appropriations process for the coming year.”

Cantor also introduced a continuing resolution which would give the House time to finish their appropriations bills. They could hardly press a government shutdown when they haven’t done their own job in the process (they still are far ahead of the Senate, which has only passed one of the 12 annual appropriations bills). The bill would be scheduled for a House vote the week of September 19 and would take funding through “late fall,” Cantor said.

This gives him time to find the offsets for this disaster relief and make his stand there. The next continuing resolution, I’d guess, would have those offsets in place. In addition, it gives time for the House to pass regulatory rollbacks, especially on the EPA, which could then get folded into the next continuing resolution. So to answer Jonathan Bernstein’s question, we may be headed for a shutdown, but not until November, when the House has more policy weapons with which to arm themselves, and once they get the disaster relief flowing.