Federal lawmakers working to ensure flow of disaster aid

WASHINGTON — Ongoing negotiations on Capitol Hill are likely to ensure a smooth flow of disaster aid in the wake of Hurricane Isaac.

Congressional aides are working quietly on a six-month government-funding bill that would prevent a shutdown of the government next month and ensure that the government’s main disaster relief program gets a steady flow of money.

It’s a different story from a year ago, when inadequate Federal Emergency Management Agency funding and slew of expensive disasters almost combined to drain the government’s main disaster program dry.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said yesterday it’s hoped lawmakers can reach agreement on the funding bill next week. The House and the Senate then would pass it before the current budget year ends on Sept. 30 and avert a government shutdown.

Both GOP and Democratic aides said the talks seem to be going smoothly.

“I have heard of no hiccups,” Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said.

Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced in late July plans for the six-month funding measure, which is expected to keep most agency budgets funded essentially at current levels. A lame duck session of Congress after the Nov. 6 elections is expected to focus on efforts to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff — an austere, one-two punch combining the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts and automatic cuts to the Pentagon and other Cabinet agencies that were required after a congressional supercommittee failed to reach a debt-reduction agreement last year.

Democrats have jabbed Republicans over GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s past opposition to a new, more stable funding mechanism for disaster relief devised as part of last summer’s budget and debt accord. But it’s unclear how effective the attacks are given that Isaac wasn’t as bad a storm as had been feared and that disaster aid coffers are relatively flush.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund, used to fund cleanup and rebuilding efforts and provide temporary housing for disaster victims, currently has a balance of $1.4 billion. That’s enough to carry the program until the new funding measure would take effect on Oct. 1.

The FEMA fund received $7.1 billion for the current year. President Barack Obama requested $6.1 billion in his February budget. It’s unclear how the upcoming funding stream will be structured.

Last year, a stopgap funding measure provided a $2.7 billion disaster aid down payment to FEMA; an alternative idea would be to allow funding to flow at current rates.

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