Over the objections of most of Senate Republicans, the Senate passed a bill to provide funding to provide emergency funding for Hurricane Sandy on Friday night. It now goes to the vacationing House of Representatives. The bill passed 62-32 with twelve Republicans joining all Democrats in supporting the bill. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell voted no.
The Republican Senators who voted with Democrats were: Scott Brown (MA), Susan Collins (ME), Dean Heller (NV.), John Hoeven (ND.), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Richard Shelby (AL), Olympia Snowe (ME), David Vitter (LA.), Dick Lugar (IN.), Thad Cochran (MS), Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) and Roger Wicker (MS). Most of these represent states affected by Sandy or other recent disasters. Four of these Senators will not be back next week.
The House must pass the bill before midnight January 2nd, or it will die. The House is still on vacation and it will not return until Sunday night. The current session of Congress ends at 11:59 pm on January 2nd.
Senator Dan Coats (R-IN) introduced a substitute bill to spend $24 billion for relief. The bill failed. The bill that passed provided $60.3 billion in funding—less than the Governors in the affected states wanted, but is the amount the White House requested. Senators from the states that suffered damage from Sandy argued that $24 billion is not enough.
Some Republican Senators argued that the bill contained funding for things outside the Hurricane zone including money to rebuild fisheries in Alaska. Republicans also argued that all the money for Sandy is not needed now therefore it should not be authorized until states and cities are ready to spend it.
That idea did not prevail. It is difficult to get anything passed in Congress let alone disaster relief even when the disaster is still in the news. It would be a nightmare for the administration to come to Congress several more times to get incremental funding approved. The only way a re-construction project can be done efficiently is if the money is not in doubt so planning can be done.
The outcome in the House is in doubt, however. First of all, they will not even return until Sunday night. They will more than likely be focused on taking up a Senate bill on the fiscal cliff. Issues like the Farm Bill and Sandy may not get much attention.
Secondly, Republicans in the House want to kick the Sandy funding issue down the road saying that it should be part of the overall FEMA authorization next year. Many Republicans including Majority Leader Eric Cantor want disaster relief to be offset by new spending cuts.
There is no assurance that the fiscal cliff will be avoided by Wednesday. If it isn’t, Congress will be consumed with trying to fix it in January. That will push everything else to the back burner.
Whether the fiscal cliff is fixed now or later, the new Congress will be fighting after the New Year on the debt ceiling once again. The nation runs out of borrowing authorization on New Years Eve, and to avoid a default on the debt, Congress will need to raise the debt ceiling. Last time that issue came up it took months and Congress went to the brink before raising it at the last second. There is no reason to expect things to be different now.
Furthermore, unless the House passes a Farm Bill before Wednesday, milk will go up to $7 a gallon and public outrage will force the Congress to deal with that.
Unfortunately, everyone who pays taxes, everyone affected by Hurricane Sandy, drought victims, anyone who bought federal bonds, anyone who relies on food stamps to feed their children, or relies on unemployment to pay their rent, and anyone who buys milk are forced to depend on the most unproductive and dysfunctional Congress in the history of this nation for relief. The odds are not on their side.
Elections have consequences.
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