The threat of a government shutdown, hardly part of any policy debates currently, became all the more real today, as Harry Reid vowed that he would not back down and would seek to replace the disaster relief section of the House continuing resolution, if it gets to the Senate, with an offset-free bill passed in the Senate last week. See here for details.

“If they want to stay into next week, that’s fine, we can do that…we can work all next week. The government doesn’t shut down until I think it’s a week from Saturday,” Mr. Reid told reporters. “Senator McConnell said there will be no shutdown. I’m not that sure. I’m not that sure. Because the Tea Party-driven House of Representatives has been so unreasonable in the past I don’t know why they should suddenly be reasonable.” [...]

At issue is about $3.2 billion in fiscal 2012 funding for FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and agricultural disaster assistance. Last week, Senate Democrats, joining with 10 Republicans, passed a bill aimed at increasing FEMA’s disaster relief account by nearly $7 billion. Mr. Reid is insisting that this legislation be included in a broader House package to fund the rest of the government, however, Republicans insist that any additional spending measures be offset with spending cuts.

Reid called the need to pass disaster relief funding without offsets “a matter of principle,” and added, “We’re not going to cave in on this.” Republicans started blaming Reid for any potential shutdown, which is what you would do if a shutdown were imminent.

I don’t think Reid is articulating the principle well. What the Republicans are doing is saying that a natural disaster must cause government accounts to drop. It assumes there’s a finite amount of money available for spending, and if a hurricane blows through your house, someone else, in this case hybrid vehicle manufacturers, have to pay for it. Now, the Chevy Volt had nothing to do with the hurricane. But they’re bearing the burden for rebuilding after the storm.

This is completely unprecedented in the history of the nation and defies common sense; that’s why Reid is fighting it, to make sure it doesn’t become a new normal. Federal disasters are by definition emergency spending, and if they aren’t treated as such, every disaster causes a reduction in overall GDP. There’s also the irony of hurting the production of clean vehicles, and thereby contributing to climate change, to pay for rebuilding after natural disasters which themselves owe their increased frequency and intensity to climate change.

If this is just a he said/she said fight, it will be hard for either side to gain advantage. If it’s clear that this is about forcing unrelated people to pay for a natural disaster, it’s a fight Democrats can win.

UPDATE: To show you how this could so easily turn into a clusterfuck, four Senate Republicans who voted for disaster relief without offsets – Roy Blunt, Susan Collins, Scott Brown and Dean Heller – are now waffling on whether they’ll support it again.