updated 12/10/2007 7:16:34 PM ET 2007-12-11T00:16:34

Matilda Winslow counts on home heating assistance to survive New England’s harsh winters. The 75-year-old widow gets by on a monthly $860 Social Security check, but she can’t keep up with heating oil costs that top $3 per gallon.

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So she turns down the heat, pulls on sweaters, piles on blankets and wears warm socks to bed. When temperatures really plummet, she leaves her home in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood and stays at her daughter’s house.

“It’s miserable,” Winslow says. “How do they expect me to live and heat my home?”

Like Winslow, millions of poor and elderly people on fixed incomes rely on heating assistance to help pay their heating bills. But with home heating oil prices surging to record levels and wintry storms already hitting many states, Congress and President Bush can’t agree on how much money to give the government’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides heating and cooling subsidies for the poor.

Bush recently vetoed a sweeping Democratic health and education spending bill that included roughly $2.4 billion heating aid for the poor this winter. The amount was $480 million more than he requested — and would have boosted the energy assistance program by about $250 million from last year.

Lawmakers from cold-weather states are still pressing for the extra money before Congress adjourns this year. They say funding has been outpaced by rising fuel prices.

“It’s really kind of scary,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, which represents state-run low income energy assistance programs. “We’re going to be looking at an awful lot of hardship.”

The fuel aid is caught up in the broader fight between Congress and the White House over where to draw the line on federal spending.

A weather war
The fight pits cold-state lawmakers who say the program is underfunded against Republican leaders who want to keep spending increases down. Some lawmakers from warm-weather states complain the program favors cold-weather regions.

Until this year’s standoff is resolved, state agencies and others on the local level who distribute federal fuel aid can’t be sure about how much money they will have to work with this winter — particularly whether the proposed $250 million increase will stand.

“Not knowing what the federal appropriation will be puts the states in more of a bind,” said Karen Imas of the Council of State Governments’ Eastern Regional Conference.

The Energy Department estimates heating oil costs will jump about 26 percent this winter. That’s an average increase of $375 for customers. Propane costs will rise about 20 percent. Natural gas customers can expect to pay about 10 percent more.

Wolfe predicts an even higher jump for heating oil than the government does. He expects households to pay an average $2,157 this winter, a $693 increase from last winter.

The Northeast, which is more reliant on oil heat than other regions, has been rocked by record-breaking oil prices and is feeling the pinch.

Rhode Island is decreasing benefit levels and expects to help about 15 percent fewer households than last year, Wolfe said. The state reduced its average primary grant benefit from $475 to $350.

'A crisis'
In Massachusetts, where about 40 percent of homes use oil heat, officials said they were so concerned about rising prices they recently provided an additional $15 million in state funds for fuel assistance.

Former Rep. Joe Kennedy, who provides low-cost heating oil to the poor through his Boston-based nonprofit Citizens Energy Corp., estimated it will cost about $800 to fill a 250-gallon home heating tank this winter in New England. He worries the cost will be crippling to poor people and families struggling paycheck-to-paycheck.

“They don’t have $800 every two or three weeks to lay down just for the cost of keeping warm,” Kennedy said. “It’s a crisis for them.”

Officials in Maine, one of the country’s coldest states, worry that poor, elderly and working families will be more vulnerable as winter wears on and they use up their fuel aid for the season.

Homes there use about 860 gallons a year, on average. At current prices of roughly $3.20 per gallon, state officials predict it will cost an average household about $2,750 for heating oil this winter.

That means Maine’s average fuel aid benefit of $579 will only last most families about a month. Five or six years ago, the average benefit would cover about half of the heating season, officials said.

About 37,000 Maine households have applied for fuel aid so far, but officials expect that figure to rise to somewhere between 48,000 and 51,000 before winter ends.

“We’ve never been so worried before,” said Dale McCormick, director of MaineHousing, a state agency that administers the federal assistance. “It’s very all-consuming.”

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