Shutdown Chances Increase Over Disaster Relief, Program Cut Disputes

September 15, 2011 1:43 p.m.

Two separate but related Republican efforts are increasing the odds that the government will shut down at the end of September, despite repeated assurances from both GOP and Democratic leaders that neither party has an appetite for another round of brinksmanship.

In a Thursday letter, over 50 House Republicans, led by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), pushed Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to make steep cuts to discretionary spending in the next fiscal year, reneging on the agreement the parties struck to resolve the debt limit standoff. That legislation set a cap on discretionary spending at $1.043 trillion and both Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) are committed to funding the government at that level for the coming year.

But many House conservatives want to go lower, and if they defect then House Democrats will have to pitch in to make sure it passes and avert a shut down.

There’s just one problem.The House’s funding legislation (known as a ‘continuing resolution’) provides what Democrats and even some Republicans say is insufficient money for disaster relief. On top of that, the GOP offset that money by slashing over a billion dollars from a program meant to encourage hybrid-vehicle development.

In the Senate today, Democrats and Republicans passed nearly $7 billion in emergency supplemental funds for FEMA with no offsets. House Republicans could ignore that bill and try to jam Democrats with their spending bill: it’s our way on emergency FEMA funds, or there’s a full government shutdown.

But they can’t count on playing that kind of hardball if Flake and House conservatives balk at the overall spending level. That’s where House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) comes in.

At her weekly Capitol briefing Thursday she warned, “I have two concerns about the continuing resolution. One is that we are setting, I think, a dangerous–and I use that word purposefully–a dangerous precedent by saying that our disaster assistance must be offset. This has never been. It would be a dangerous precedent to set. [Second] I am particularly concerned about the particular offset they have because it is about the future…. I think it is a very bad choice, as do my members.”

So can it pass? “That depends on how many Republican votes it gets,” she said.

She’ll have to act quickly to rein in her members. In a reluctant statement Wednesday evening, the top Dem on the Appropriations Committee, Norm Dicks (D-WA), said, “Despite my concerns, I will support this.” But if he does, and House Republicans pass their funding bill, Senate Dems and FEMA could easily find themselves shortchanged.

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