TOPICS > Politics

Disaster Aid at Center of Funding Battle in House

September 22, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The latest battle over U.S. federal funding is a tug-of-war over disaster aid. Judy Woodruff discusses the battle, and fears that it could lead to a government shutdown, with The Wall Street Journal's Naftali Bendavid.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The threat of a government shutdown once again loomed over Washington today. House Republican leaders were scrambling to secure enough votes after their first attempt to pass a bill that would fund the government through Nov. 18 failed on the floor last night.

At the heart of the dispute is the amount of emergency disaster relief funding included in the bill and how it is paid for. Both parties sparred Thursday over who was to blame for the impasse.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio speaker of the House: Listen, there’s no threat of government shutdown. Let’s just get this out there.

This continuing resolution was designed to be a bipartisan bill. And we had every reason to believe that our counterparts across the aisle were supportive. And once they began to see where some of our votes were, they decided to play politics and vote against the disaster relief for millions of Americans who have been affected by this.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, D-Ill. majority whip: Well, we’re watching the Tea Party shutdown movie for the third time this year. They have gotten two thumbs down for attempts to shut down the government over the C.R. first round and shut down the economy and the government over the debt ceiling.

But, still, they put this movie up on the screen again. The ending isn’t surprising. It isn’t even interesting anymore. We know how this ends. Ultimately, they will realize that the American people are fed up with the strategy of shutting down our government and threatening to do it time and again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on this still-developing story, we are joined by Naftali Bendavid, congressional correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.

Naftali, good to you have back with us.

NAFTALI BENDAVID, The Wall Street Journal: Thanks for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, another impasse in the Congress, another possible government shutdown. Say it ain’t so.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are the real prospects?

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Well, the truth is that I think both parties are very well aware that voters were absolutely disgusted by the last time this happened, by the threat of default and by the threat of government shutdown before that.

And you saw Speaker Boehner be very careful to distance himself from any possibility of a government shutdown. And I think both parties know that that would be very poorly received by voters. Of course, it’s always possible if they can’t by Oct. 1 figure out how to resolve their differences over the spending bill. We could see the threat of a shutdown.

But my sense is that both of them understand how unpopular that would be, and that’s going to make them work very hard to avoid it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Naftali, explain for us the basics of what this fight is all about.

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Well, what the debate comes down to is disaster aid relief.

There has been of course hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, wildfires, all kinds of stuff, and that makes all kinds of victims that need federal aid. And so the Senate has put forward a bill that would provide $7 billion in that aid. That’s a Democratic proposal. The House is proposing $3.6 billion.

But a catch there is that they want to offset some of that with a big cut elsewhere in the federal government, in the federal budget. And so that’s really what the fight has come down to is over how to handle disaster relief.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And when we hear the speaker put the blame on Democrats, saying they were playing games, I mean, the fact is, it’s more complicated than that. There were members of his own party who said they are not going to go along with him.

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Yes. I mean, 48 House Republicans voted against this spending bill that was backed by House Republican leaders.

I just think, when you run the chamber and 48 of your members defect, you can’t really blame the other side. I mean, the minority votes against the bill. The Democrats were actually uncharacteristically unified in opposing this bill. But that is what the minority party does and can be expected to do.

I think this really was a problem for House Republican leaders. It’s a problem they have faced before and they are likely to face it again. They have these 50 rebellious conservative members that are likely to oppose a lot of what the leadership tries to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, that is what I was going to ask. Who are these holdouts and what is it that they don’t like about this legislation?

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Well, you know, it is the same people that have opposed similar bills in the past. It tends to be — many of them are freshmen. Others of them are just conservatives that have been around a long time. Many of them have Tea Party backing.

But they’re unhappy with the level of spending in this bill. The spending in this bill is a level that was agreed to by both parties after the debt limit debate. But these folks think it should be a lot lower.

And they just, flat out, four dozen of them said they are not going to support it for that reason. And all the arm-twisting and cajoling and pleading that Boehner and other Republican leaders tried to do wasn’t enough to change their mind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the cajoling was going on today.

But, meanwhile, the Democrats who, as you said, were uncharacteristically united on this, don’t like what it was that the money was going to come out of that was going to be the offset.

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Yes, they were very unhappy that the money was going to come out of a program that promoted energy efficiency in cars.

And, you know, they think it’s a program that has done a lot of good, that’s provided a lot of jobs. But there’s another issue here, too, which is, it is no accident that Democrats are planting their flag in a terrain of disaster relief. This is one area that a lot of people, even people who think the government should be spending a lot less, they favor the government spending money to help suffering Americans in need.

And it’s a way for Democrats to kind of underline that the government can do good things, that sometimes federal spending serves a good purpose. And so they picked a fairly popular area and they figured this was a good political fight for them to have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because, traditionally, disaster relief has been almost a given when it has come up before Congress.

NAFTALI BENDAVID: It’s been a given, absolutely. And it hasn’t been offset by cuts elsewhere. It’s just one of those areas where — military spending is sort of like this as well, but perhaps not even as much.

There is just something about seeing Americans struck by a tornado or by a hurricane or by wildfires that makes other people want to help them and feel like this is a legitimate role for the government. So usually these things are funded by emergency spending measures. They’re usually not offset elsewhere.

And, again, the Democrats felt like, if they were going to make a case for spending, rather than having it be on some obscure program, this was a way to do it. And I think that is why the fight has come to where it is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Naftali, where does this go from here? We know that the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, said today that these offsets involving energy spending that you mentioned, energy cuts, will not fly in the Senate. So what happens now?

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Well, they have to reach some kind of compromise.

I mean, one thing the Democrats are really worried about, it is not just this particular offset. They are wary of creating a precedent whereby any time that there is disaster relief spending, some government program gets slashed. They want to make sure that the precedent is maintained that this kind of spending doesn’t necessarily get taken from elsewhere in the budget.

So, you know, they’re going to have to find some kind of compromise. One possibility is that they have the lower level of spending that the Republicans want, but that they take away this offset, so that no other program gets sacrificed in order to support this spending.

And that’s my sense of probably where it’s going to go. But they don’t have that much time. They are supposed to be in research next week. Right after that, the fiscal year comes to an end. So they are operating under something of a deadline.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meanwhile, finally, Naftali, to what extent are members of Congress aware of how this looks to the rest of the country, even to the rest of the world?

NAFTALI BENDAVID: I mean, I think they are all too aware, to tell you the truth.

When they went home in August, there was such a public backlash over this brinksmanship, over the threats of default, the threats of a government shutdown, and just this sense that Congress wasn’t able to tackle the big problems facing the country, that they were more interested in bickering and arguing, that they came back, particularly the Republicans, somewhat chastened and determined to look more like they were going to cooperate.

But this immediately came up. Immediately, they are back at it. I think they know that this looks terrible. And I think that’s one reason that we are probably going to have a resolution relatively soon. But, of course, with Congress, you just never know what’s going to happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I marked down that you said that on Sept. 22. We will see.

Naftali Bendavid of The Wall Street Journal, thank you.

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Thanks very much.