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US Senate Paves Way for Possible Federal Government Funding Extension

  • Michael Bowman

The U.S. Senate late Monday approved a short-term spending bill to fund the federal government through mid-November and avert a possible government shutdown. Although the Senate bill differs slightly from a version put forth by the House of Representatives, and the House is not in session this week, Congress has a path to meet Friday’s funding deadline.

For weeks, the only major roadblock to a spending extension has been partisan disagreements over expanding domestic assistance in the wake of a hurricane and other devastating natural disasters. Last week, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed a bill that would add billions of dollars to disaster aid, but would trim a federal fuel efficiency program to offset spending and stay within bipartisan budget targets.

The House bill was defeated in the Democratically-controlled Senate, where many lawmakers objected to the concept of seeking budget savings as a precondition for approving assistance to Americans in need.

Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York said the House action sets a bad precedent for the nation.

“The next earthquake, are we going to have to debate how much to cut border patrol funds? In the next disaster, when fires are ravaging across Texas or New Mexico or California, are we going to have to debate how much to cut food safety inspectors? That is not our way, " said Schumer.

On Monday, Senate Democrats put forth a spending bill identical to the House version, except it did not contain budget cuts to pay for disaster aid. That bill was defeated on a procedural vote, with most Republicans opposing it.

Then Senate Democrats pointed to a newly-released report, saying that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, has enough funds to last through the end of the current fiscal year, which expires on Friday. They argued that no immediate boost in FEMA funding was required, and that funds budgeted for the beginning of the new fiscal year in October would suffice for now. Democrats proposed a new spending bill with no immediate cash infusion for FEMA and no budget offsets.

Most Senate Republicans embraced the bill, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who chastised Democrats for forcing days of Senate activity to achieve a result only slightly different from last week’s House bill.

“In my view, this entire fire drill [exercise] was completely and totally unnecessary," said McConnell. "But I am glad a resolution appears to be at hand.”

The bill passed the Senate 79 to 12.

Now, only one issue remains - House consideration of the Senate bill. As Senate Majority Leader Democrat Harry Reid noted, the House is in recess this week and unlikely to return before the Friday deadline for extending government funding.

“The House of Representatives, as we speak - they left," said reid. "They are gone. They are not in Washington. It is real hard to negotiate with people who are not here.”

One possible solution would be for a small number of Representatives to convene this week for a voice vote extending government funding until next Monday, when the full chamber will be in session. At that point, the six-week funding extension could be approved and sent to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature.

If accomplished, the U.S. government would be funded until mid-November, when another budget battle might ensue.