Image: Democratic leaders hold news conference
Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (C) answers reporters questions during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol August 3, 2011 in Washington, DC.
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updated 9/27/2011 9:18:15 AM ET 2011-09-27T13:18:15

A bitterly divided and poll-battered Congress has nearly worked its way out of a nasty fight over disaster aid, but only by abruptly abandoning efforts to immediately refill almost empty federal disaster relief accounts.

Instead, with the administration assuring lawmakers that the immediate infusion of $1 billion in disaster money wasn't needed to avoid a cutoff this week, Senate leaders moved quickly Monday to jettison the money from a pending Democratic measure and instead pass bare-bones legislation to avert a government shutdown at week's end.

That measure, approved by the Senate on a 79-12 vote, would keep the government running until mid-November.

The House appears likely to endorse that measure next week when it returns from a weeklong recess. In the meantime, a one-week stopgap measure needed to avoid a government shutdown at midnight Friday appears likely to be adopted in a sparsely attended session Thursday. The weeklong measure would provide a $2.7 billion infusion of disaster money that would make sure federal help continues to flow to victims of Hurricane Irene and other recent disasters.

The lowest-common-denominator solution came after Republicans stymied efforts by Senate Democrats for a $6.9 billion disaster aid package. House Republicans instead insisted on a $3.7 billion measure — with $1 billion of the most urgently needed money "paid for" with cuts to clean energy programs important to Democrats.

After pushing for weeks for a higher disaster aid figure, Senate Democrats instead fought their last battle to make sure the energy programs emerged uncut. But the casualty was $1 billion in disaster relief supported by Republicans and Democrats alike.

The breakthrough of sorts came after the Federal Emergency Management Agency indicated Monday it had enough money for disaster relief efforts through Friday. That disclosure allowed lawmakers to move to the lower disaster aid figure and allow both sides to save face.

The disaster aid debate will be revisited when Congress passes a massive spending bill later this year. Under the terms of last month's budget pact, up to $11.3 billion in disaster aid could be added to the budget without having to be offset with spending cuts.

Senate Democrats declared victory despite coming up empty-handed in their battle for more disaster aid. Instead, they crowed over preventing cuts to an Energy Department loan program for automobile manufacturers that they credit with creating jobs.

"We rejected the idea that we should be forced to choose between American jobs and disaster relief," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Reid said White House Budget chief Jacob Lew had assured him there's enough money in FEMA's disaster pipeline to carry through the week.

There was no immediate comment from House GOP leaders, although their approval for the measure seemed a mere formality after the party's Senate leader agreed to it.

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Republicans had stood against Democratic efforts to use deficit spending to pay for the disaster aid.

While it was unclear precisely how long FEMA's remaining funds would last, one official said the agency began conserving funds last month as Hurricane Irene approached the U.S. mainland, prioritizing its aid to help individual disaster victims and pay states and local governments for immediate needs, such as removing debris and building sandbag barricades.

Funding of $450 million has been put on hold for longer-term needs such as reconstruction of damaged roads, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing lack of authority to discuss the matter publicly. In addition, the agency has been able to reclaim unused money from past disasters, the official said.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

Video: Congress can’t agree on spending plan for disaster aid

  1. Closed captioning of: Congress can’t agree on spending plan for disaster aid

    >> earthquake was the same week as the last hurricane here in the east. and that was just the latest of ten natural disasters so far this year that have required funding. now, disaster victims are at the crux of this next and newest budget fight that is going on in washington , among members of congress. kelly o'donnell is covering on the hill for us tonight. kelly , good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian, this has been building for days. the type of deep differences that make so many people angry at washington . the senate came back tonight ready to battle it out over spending. they're over pressure, because fema is running low and could be out of money by friday. still recovering from the destruction one month after hurricane irene , this man feel as ban donned by washington .

    >> this is not a game. if they want to play politics, this is not a game. there's different games that politicians play, but it's only us that are suffering. that's wrong.

    >> today, bobbick, who has lived here 18 years.

    >> this is where the kitchen was. it's all gone.

    >> reporter: showed his local councilman his home on berkshire avenue.

    >> we have to help. i don't want to hear that the money is not there.

    >> reporter: the politics of disaster is a man made mess. this time a fight over how to keep money flowing to victims and states hit hard. democrats had wanted $6 billion for fema, the federal emergency management agency . with no cuts taken from other programs.

    >> the tea party and the republicans want to take grandma hostage who's on her roof asking for help.

    >> reporter: republicans set fema funding lower at $3.6 billion and argued some spending cuts are needed because of the deficit.

    >> they'd rather just add these funds to the deficit. why? because they say that's the way we've always done things around here.

    >> reporter: officials say fema's bank account is at an historic low tonight. $114 million when that disaster fund usually holds $1 billion. nearly tapped out because 2011 has been the year of the natural disaster . from a crippling blizzard to tornado devastation, wildfires, floods, ten disasters declared federal emergencies, with a cost of more than $1 billion each. and then came hurricane irene . $7 billion and counting.

    >> maybe that anger is finally getting through. a late development. we're told the senate has reached a kind of deal that would keep money going to fema without those cuts, and it would also avoid the government shutting down at the end of the week. that was a threat here too. it's not quite over, looks like they're coming together. brian?

    >> chance of agreement breaking out in washington just tonight. kelly , thanks for that.

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