Reporting from Washington— Retreating from partisan stalemate days before a potential government shutdown, the Senate passed a temporary 2012 funding bill that also replenishes federal disaster aid.
Senators approved the measure Monday night by an overwhelming vote, 79 to 12. The bill still needs approval of the GOP-led House, which is in recess, and Republican leaders hoped it could pass without a prolonged fight.
Otherwise, government funding and aid for disaster victims runs out at the end of the week, when fiscal 2011 ends. The new fiscal year begins Saturday.
After the vote, both sides claimed victory.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hailed the legislation as “a vindication of what Republicans have been saying all along. Before we spend the taxpayers' money, we should have a real accounting of what is actually needed…. In these days of huge deficits, we need to prioritize our spending around here.”
The breakthrough came Monday when the Federal Emergency Management Agency said disaster funds, almost depleted after this year's floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires, would last through the week. Earlier, FEMA had estimated its disaster account would run out sooner. That turn of events eliminated the need for $1 billion in supplemental aid for the remainder of fiscal 2011 — that is, the rest of this week.
It also allowed Republicans to drop their insistence that supplemental aid be paid for with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. Routine funding, the GOP said, did not need such offsets. That, in turn, meant no new example for such offsets, which was important to Democrats. Republicans had targeted green energy programs that Democrats say create jobs.
FEMA has begun prioritizing resources to provide immediate food, water and debris-removal assistance. The agency had $114 million remaining as of Monday morning, officials said, and was spending about $35 million a day on aid.
“The Disaster Relief Fund could be fully exhausted by the end of the week,” FEMA spokesman Rachel Racusen said. “It is already at a historic low, and we are managing these scarce resources as the fund approaches zero.”
The Senate compromise, which would fund the government through Nov. 18, includes $2.65 billion in disaster aid.
Although a deal seems imminent, little time remains, with the House in recess for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana.
The House could approve the measure by a simple voice vote, which would not require lawmakers to return to Washington. But House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has had trouble controlling his hard-line conservatives. If they oppose the deal, all members might need to return to debate the measure.
In a nod to Boehner's difficulties, the Senate also approved a separate bill that would allow the House to approve a one-week funding measure, keeping the government running through Oct. 4. Then the full House could vote on the broader package when lawmakers return next week.
House GOP leaders convened a conference call with rank-and-file lawmakers Monday night to assess the situation.
Both sides had hoped to avoid another high-stakes showdown so soon after the divisive debt ceiling debate in the summer and the threatened government shutdown last spring. Those episodes left Americans deeply disappointed in Congress' performance.
A record 81% of Americans are dissatisfied with how the country is being governed, according to a Gallup poll released Monday, and a majority want to see political leaders compromise.
But both sides found political advantage in holding firm. Republicans could show their determination to slash federal spending, while Democrats relished a fight they believed had populist appeal.
“Nobody — nobody — wants to see the government shut down,” said Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.). “In the meantime, if you can score some political points, you score them.”
Kathleen Hennessey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.