Washington – An impasse between the House and Senate over a bill to keep the government open after Sept. 30 and provide aid to natural disaster victims deepened Friday as the Senate easily shot down a House measure passed just hours before.
House members, considering their work done, headed home to their districts for a week’s recess, trailing uncertainty behind them since no resolution to the standoff appeared imminent. The Senate set a procedural vote for Monday evening in an effort to advance an alternative, but it was unclear whether it could draw sufficient support or whether Republican leaders would call members of the House back to consider it even if did pass the Senate.
The dispute meant that less than six months after the fiscal throwdown that left the government at the precipice of a shutdown last spring, Congress has brought the nation there again. While the government has until next Friday before it runs out of money, the $175 million in an emergency aid fund for disaster victims is set to run dry as early as Tuesday.
After House approval of its stopgap bill after midnight on Friday, the Senate voted 59 to 36 to set aside the House bill, with a handful of conservative Republicans joining with Democrats to deliver a quick and decisive rejection. Democrats opposed the measure because the disaster relief effort was offset by spending cuts to other programs dear to them. Conservatives appeared to feel their House colleagues had failed to cut short-term spending deeply enough.
The House bill, which had passed on the second attempt after cuts were added to appeal to conservatives, provided $3.65 billion in disaster relief. The money was offset by cuts to an Energy Department loan program for energy-efficient cars and another department program that was used to guarantee a loan for Solyndra, the solar equipment manufacturer that filed recently for bankruptcy protection.
After that measure failed in the Senate, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, said he would counter Monday with a new bill that would embrace the House disaster relief amount, far less than the $6.9 billion the Senate had sought, but still reject any offsets, which Democrats and some Republicans say set an uncomfortable precedent. Asked by a reporter if another form of offset would be acceptable to Mr. Reid, he snapped, “No.”
However, Mr. Reid declined to allow a vote on his bill on Friday, saying he needed the weekend to try to cut a deal with Republicans. “Take a weekend, work with us, cool off,” Mr. Reid said in a news conference. It is also likely that Democrats hope Republicans come under pressure in their districts over the weekend to pass quickly a bill with disaster relief. But the ticking clock may work against Mr. Reid. If his bill cannot pass the chamber — and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said it would not — he will be left with just hours before the federal emergency money runs dry and a House scattered through the nation.
House members were told Friday that no votes were scheduled until Oct. 3, though the House will be in pro forma session next week. Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat, said Friday that he believed that if the Senate bill received 60 votes, it could pass the House by unanimous consent without lawmakers returning, an optimistic assessment given the partisan atmosphere.
Indeed, 24 Republicans voted against their own party’s bill early on Friday morning, because it did not cut enough current-year spending even though an agreement reached in July with both parties to raise the debt ceiling set the spending levels.
Without an agreement on a bill to pay for federal operations beginning Oct. 1, the government would run out of money before lawmakers returned unless some resolution was found. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has postponed several repair projects, and the money in its disaster bank is at its lowest levels in history.
On Friday, four governors from states hit by natural disasters — Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Bev Perdue of North Carolina, both Democrats, and Chris Christie of New Jersey and Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, two Republicans — issued a statement criticizing the Congressional impasse.
“Within 10 days of Hurricane Katrina, Congress passed and the president signed over $60 billion in aid for the Gulf Coast,” the governors wrote. “It’s been 28 days since Irene and Lee started battering our states. We urge this Congress to move swiftly to ensure that disaster aid through FEMA and other federal programs is sufficient to start rebuilding now.”
For the entire day, both Democrats and Republicans expressed outrage and confusion over events. Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Senate Republican, appeared to be instructing Senator Kelly Ayotte, a freshman New Hampshire Republican, on what precisely they were voting on the floor of the Senate. Spokesmen for various leaders of both parties exchanged Twitter barbs. News conferences in overly air-conditioned conference rooms were held, with Republicans and Democrats accusing one another of bad faith.
Speaker John A. Boehner said Friday that the only way to advance the legislation would be for the Senate to capitulate and accept the House bill. “With FEMA expected to run out of disaster funding as soon as Monday, the only path to getting assistance into the hands of American families immediately is for the Senate to approve the House bill,” he said. “This is no time for delay.”
As the spending bill stalled, a spokesman for President Obama expressed alarm at the inability of Congress to reach a deal.
“The members of Congress work for the American people,” said the spokesman, Jay Carney, in a briefing with reporters. “They work for the constituents who sent them here, in their districts and states. We are absolutely confident that the vast majority of those constituents are not asking very much when they insist that Congress perform the basic functions that they were sent here to perform, and that they do not let politics get in the way of what should be a relatively straightforward exercise of funding the government.”