The Senate thankfully has found a way to defuse a House fight over emergency funding for federal disaster relief that had threatened to derail an larger budget extension bill and bring on the shutdown of the government. Still, the needless fire drill -- like the recent prolonged battle over raising the debt ceiling -- is just one more example of a Congress crippled by witless tea party ideologues who had rather push the government to the brink of a breakdown than work in bipartisan fashion to heal an ailing economy and reduce persistent joblessness and soaring poverty.
The ploy invoked by the tea party faction of House Republicans was a demand for new cuts to FEMA's budget, and further general budget cuts, to offset emergency funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which had run out of money.
That marked a new low, even for the tea party. Supplemental disaster relief funds for FEMA, and the millions of Americans who receive that vital emergency aid, has never before been conditioned on offsetting cuts, either in FEMA or in other programs, as tea party members demanded when proposals were introduced to keep FEMA aid viable.
House Democrats rightly contested both the conditions for supplemental FEMA funding proposed by tea party leaders last week, and the offsetting cuts they had demanded in alternative energy loan programs for energy efficiency and electric cars. Regardless, the House's Republican majority voted to provide a reduced $3.65 billion in new FEMA aid, and to cut the alternative energy programs.
The House bill logically provoked another impasse in the Senate. Majority Democrats, unwilling to bow to more stringent tea party cuts, were ready to reject the House bill, mainly for the precedent it would set in allowing the House to hold emergency funding hostage to tea party financial maneuvering. They rightly insisted that the Senate approve a bill to replenish FEMA's coffers, which have been bled by an unprecedented string of 10 epic weather disasters in eight months that cost FEMA more than $1 billion each.
The list of disasters is now common lore. It includes the unrivaled strings of tornadoes that destroyed towns across the South and Midwest, and up to previously untouched Northeastern counties; historically high floods across the farm belt; uncontained summer-long fires in the Southwest; a drought that has parched Texas worse than any in more than 500 years; and the loss of crops and herds at levels not seen in this nation's contemporary history.
FEMA was expecting to run out of money early this week, leaving it unable to house, feed, supply and provide transitional aid to Americans in dire need due to natural cataclysms. Monday's breakthrough in Senate negotiations came when FEMA officials arranged a way to keep its work going through this week on with the $114 million they had on hand. With that four-day relief, the Senate agreed on a 79-12 vote to continue current funding levels, to federal agencies that were due to run out on Friday, for seven more weeks, until the end of the current fiscal year.
House Republican members still must pass the Senate patch. There's a good chance they will, given the heavy criticism they have faced for their willingness to shut-off aid to victims of weather disasters. Expressions of public support for extended aid by FEMA could help assure that outcome.