Yet another showdown is looming in Congress as the Democratic-controlled Senate Thursday sent the Republican-controlled House a disaster relief bill carrying a price tag twice as much as the House is prepared to spend.
The Senate measure, approved on a 62-37 vote, earmarks $6.9 billion for disaster aid for the next 12 months. The legislation is unlikely to clear the House unless Senate Democrats are willing to offset the new spending with cuts in other parts of the federal budget.
The looming dispute comes during a year in which every region of the country incurred economic losses due to weather-related or other natural disasters. That includes a blizzard that lasted from late January to Groundhog Day, affecting more than 100 million Americans, an outbreak of more than 100 tornadoes in April, floods in spring and summer, Hurricane Irene in August and the Texas wildfires this September.
So far this year, there have been 10 separate natural disasters with losses of $1 billion or more, the National Weather Service reports. That's the most since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began tracking the cost of weather disasters three decades ago.
Because 2011 has been a record year for natural disasters, with President Obama declaring disasters in 48 of 50 states, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is running short of funds to assist disaster victims.
In fact, FEMA had to suspend some payments for longer-term projects in order to have enough money to distribute to victims of Hurricane Irene and other recent disasters.
On Capitol Hill, the House next week is expected to approve a spending bill to keep the government running past Sept. 30. The measure includes $1 billion in disaster aid that would be available right away. House Republicans plan to offset the outlay by cutting a federal program that promotes electric cars.
The House plan doesn't set well with Senate Democrats who say the lower chamber doesn't go far enough in providing disaster victims the help they need. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said the House plan is a short-term fix, partially funding a limited number of disaster relief programs for six weeks.
In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Landrieu chided, "You cannot budget for disaster relief in six-week segments. Disaster recovery doesn't work that way."