Despite threats to carry on with a one-week recess, Congress stayed in session, with still no agreement on funding the government past this Friday. That means the threat of a government shutdown is still there.
The Senate will vote this afternoon on a continuing resolution to fund the government that includes $3.65 billion in disaster relief funding for FEMA; that’s down from an earlier Senate request for $6.9 billion. There are no spending offsets to the disaster funding. That’s basically the only change from the House bill that the Senate rejected on Friday. Senate Republicans will likely attempt to block the bill through the filibuster.
Meanwhile, FEMA could run out of money for its ongoing relief operations in disaster-stricken states tomorrow. There were talks over the weekend that yielded little progress. The Wall Street Journal decided to portray this as an example of both sides squabbling.
Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.), speaking Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program, blamed the House, calling the showdown embarrassing. “There is a group, and I do believe it is mostly centered in the House in terms of these tea-party Republicans, who say, ‘On every issue, we’re going to make this a make-or-break,’ ” Mr. Warner said.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) criticized Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) for failing to pass a measure to keep the government funded into the new fiscal year. “I’ll give the Senate Democratic leader most of the credit—he manufactured a crisis all week when there was no crisis,” Mr. Alexander said, also on CNN.
That misses the point. This is about setting a precedent of offsetting disaster relief funding, and nothing else. Republicans want to design a system where, every time there’s a natural disaster, some unrelated program has to pay the price. Democrats what the system as it has worked for the history of the Republic: the federal government pays for the needs of those hit by a natural disaster without smacking unrelated budgets, because it’s the right thing to do. Republicans see this purely as a matter of spending more or spending less. Democrats see it as an issue of basic morality and fairness. Should the next Katrina be offset?
And it’s also about keeping promises. In fact, the debt limit deal allowed for disaster relief funding above the spending cap on discretionary spending. You can see this right on page 13 of the Budget Control Act. It’s in Congress-ese, but it basically says that Congress can go up to $11 billion beyond the spending cap on disaster relief funding.
Republicans might say that the deal allowed for FEMA funding above the cap, but it didn’t mandate it, and nothing says you CAN’T offset disaster relief, although the Act explicitly says you don’t have to. That’s pretty weak tea. Clearly the legislative intent was to allow a safety valve in the event of big natural disasters that required immediate relief. Republicans want to pretend that safety valve doesn’t exist.
Ezra Klein is right to say that this is as good a moment as any to call Republicans’ bluff on their hostage taking. He’s wrong to say that this is the first moment. This sets up exactly like the FAA authorization bill. There, Democrats rebelled when Republicans tried to violate another norm, adding policy riders to routine authorization extensions.
Eventually, that was a fight Democrats won: they got two clean FAA authorization extensions. But it took a two-week shutdown, one that made Republicans look so bad that they prepped a bill for back pay for FAA workers taken off the job involuntarily. Democrats want to replicate the model.