Congress Attempts To Avert Shutdown

With FEMA running out of disaster money at some point this week and the whole federal government starting a new fiscal year on Saturday without an accompanying budget, Congress muddles through another budget standoff. NPR's Tamara Keith joins Michele Norris to bring us the latest.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. The Senate has approved a bill to keep the government funded through mid-November. This means the political standoff that could have shut the government down is likely over. NPR's Tamara Keith joins us now from Capitol Hill. Tamara, let's start off with that standoff. What were they fighting over that could have caused the government to shut down?

TAMARA KEITH: There were two issues. One was a measure to fund the government through mid-November, and no one was really fighting over this. The levels of funding were settled months ago. The second was a provision to give emergency disaster funds to FEMA, and those two things were attached. The House passed a bill last week to give FEMA a billion dollars in emergency funding right away basically to tide it over until the start of the fiscal year at the end of this week. But it offset that spending by cutting green technology loan programs, which Democrats hated, and neither side appeared willing to budge.

NORRIS: So what is it that allowed the standoff to come to an end? It looks like it's not likely to happen now.

KEITH: Right. It all came down to the FEMA disaster relief fund. For weeks now, we've been hearing that this fund with FEMA was running out of cash to help disaster victims. And, you know, with all these tornadoes and hurricanes and fires that we've had this year, FEMA was just going through cash very quickly, and it thought it would be out of money by early this week. Then, FEMA came out today and said that it hadn't got as many applications as it had been anticipating, and that it would actually have enough money to last through the end of this week, which would get it into the new fiscal year, where FEMA would get two and a half billion dollars more to help disaster victims. And this was a critical shift because it made the fight over the billion dollars of emergency funding and whether it should be offset a moot point. Here is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

HARRY REID: It's only worth fighting when there's something to fight for. We've basically resolved this issue, Mr. President.

NORRIS: So, Tamara, I just heard you talking about quite a shift. There's been another incredible shift. The Senate passed this temporary funding measure, as I understand, overwhelmingly, including with the support from a lot of Republicans. That is quite a shift in itself.

KEITH: Yeah. It's amazing how something that seems so intractable one minute can suddenly become a whole lot of nothing. And the key here was finding a way for Democrats to say that they had gotten disaster funding without offsetting it and for Republicans to be able to say that they had forced the Democrats to give up, wanting to spend billions of dollars without offsets. Here's Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He spoke on the floor just before the vote.

MITCH MCCONNELL: In my view, this entire fire drill was completely and totally unnecessary, but I'm glad a resolution appears to be at hand.

KEITH: And thanks to FEMA essentially finding money under the couch cushions, everyone gets to save face. If the government gets funding through November, assuming that the House passes this, disaster victims don't have to worry anymore, and politicians on both sides can blame each other for manufacturing a crisis.

NORRIS: Just quickly, what happens next?

KEITH: This has to go back to the House. It's expected that the House will approve it without much difficulty, though it's not certain. A spokesman for Speaker John Boehner says that they'll be talking to their members about it in the coming days.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Tamara Keith reporting from Capitol Hill. Tamara, thank you very much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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