By Lisa Mascaro
For the second time this year, the federal government lurched toward a possible shutdown as the Republican-controlled House passed a government funding bill that included a poison pill the Democratic-controlled Senate vowed to reject.
The measure, which narrowly passed early Friday by a vote of 219 to 203, is needed to temporarily fund the government once the new fiscal year begins next week. It also includes $3.65 billion to replenish the coffers of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is expected to run out of money by Monday after a succession of tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and wildfires.
Disaster funding typically draws bipartisan support, but this year Republican leaders insist that any supplemental emergency funds be offset by spending cuts elsewhere. Democrats object, and time is running out for Congress to act. Lawmakers are expected to be on recess next week for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana, although Senate leaders have vowed to stay to fight the Republican-led bill.
The House measure would take $1.5 billion from a green vehicle program that Democrats champion as a job creator. To attract more Republican votes, leaders decided to also take $100 million from an Energy Department account for renewable energy firms -- including Solyndra, the Northern California solar manufacturer with ties to the White House that received a $535-million loan guarantee, then went bankrupt.
The Solyndra angle may have sealed the deal for conservatives, who had rejected an earlier version of the bill on Wednesday, demanding a $24-billion spending cut.
Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) said cutting that account would "ensure we never again have another boondoggle like Solyndra."
But leaders in the Senate, where Democrats hold the majority, vowed to reject the House GOP approach, protesting more reductions to alternative energy accounts that they say are at the forefront of producing green jobs.
"We're watching the 'tea-party'-shutdown movie for the third time this year," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). "The American people are fed up with the strategy of shutting down our government and threatening to do it time and again over issues large and small."
"There's no threat of a government shutdown," House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said.
Boehner had hoped to avoid a prolonged budget battle after earlier fights left the country on the verge of a federal shutdown this spring and debt default this summer. Both of those battles sent congressional approval ratings plummeting.
But the GOP insistence that aid for victims of Hurricane Irene and other natural disasters be paid for by cutting other spending was too harsh for Democrats, particularly after Republicans targeted green energy programs they support.
After the similar bill went down to defeat on Wednesday, GOP leaders were in a bind. Conservative Republicans had rejected the overall level of government spending as too high, even though that level was included in the summer debt ceiling deal. They wanted to trim $24 billion to bring spending in line with the GOP's House-passed budget -- a nonstarter in the Senate.
Democrats objected to swapping disaster aid for spending cuts. And after the earlier measure failed, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Thursday noted the importance of the program in supporting companies that are developing new green technologies and jobs.
Republican leaders scrambled, and Boehner presented his troops with various options. Boehner and his team had considered trying to win Democratic support by dropping the disaster offsets, but ultimately decided to pursue votes from their own party.
As the evening dragged toward midnight, House floor debate became raucous. At one point, members had to be reminded against using profanity.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) called the GOP proposal a "full frontal assault on clean energy."
Freshman Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) gave an emotional plea for aid for his storm-battered district. "It's heartbreaking and heart-wrenching," he said. "I beg you, pass this relief now."
House Democrats remained almost unified in their opposition, with six voting for the bill. Twenty-four Republicans voted against, half as many as opposed the similar version the day before.
But the proposal to cut deeper into green energy accounts only emboldened Democrats. A cheer went up in a closed-door meeting of Senate Democrats late Thursday as they vowed to continue fighting the latest proposal.
"It's wrong," said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). "We're not going to do it."