Bid to boost disaster aid clears Senate hurdle

Leonard Runnells wades into his yard in Springfield, Vt., to tie down a dumpster in rising floodwaters Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011.
James M. Patterson

WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats turned the tables and scored a victory Tuesday in a bid to pass $7 billion in emergency disaster relief.

After a loss Monday caused by too many absent senators, the disaster relief measure cleared a procedural hurdle by a 61-38 vote, one more than needed to defeat GOP blocking tactics.

The vote could set the stage for passage of the measure later this week, depending on whether conservative Republicans will continue to try to block the legislation. The funding measure comes in the wake of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, which have led to widespread flooding in the East.

The measure would immediately give the Federal Emergency Management Agency $500 million to replenish its main disaster aid account, which could run dry before the Sept. 30 end of the 2011 budget year, as well as $4.6 billion for 2012 as requested by President Barack Obama. It also provides $1.3 billion for Army Corps of Engineers for flood-control projects.

With FEMA accounts running dangerously low, the agency has been forced to halt longer-term rebuilding projects for past disasters in order to conserve money for immediate help like food and emergency shelter for victims of Irene and Lee.

Eight Republicans joined with every Democrat to advance the measure. Key support came from GOP conservatives from disaster-affected states, including Roy Blunt of Missouri, John Hoeven of North Dakota and tea party favorite Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who switched his vote after voting against the measure on Monday.

Tuesday's vote sets up a potential battle with the Republican-controlled House, whose leaders say they will put an undetermined amount of disaster aid in a separate measure to keep the government running past Sept. 30 and prevent a government shutdown. Republicans leaders promise to advance Obama's request, but they may seek to add offsetting spending cuts to cover at least the $500 million in immediate FEMA relief.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he prefers the thriftier approach promised by House GOP leaders.

"The House before the end of this month will be sending over a (stopgap funding bill) that includes a responsible approach to paying for the multiple disasters that we have had over the last few months," McConnell said.

This year has featured a wave of disasters — tornadoes in Missouri and Alabama, flooding in North Dakota and across the East, and a rare earthquake in Virginia — and even tea party lawmakers elected to shrink the size of government have joined with liberal Democrats to win the emergency aid.

The vote puts the Senate on the path to officially debate the legislation, but it could take days if conservatives seek to continue to slow the measure.