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Government Shutdown Threatens Again


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Next Friday marks the end of the federal government's fiscal year, which means, given the climate in Washington, D.C. these days, there's once again talk of a government shutdown. Not a single spending bill for the next fiscal year has passed Congress. Yesterday, even a stopgap measure to keep the government in business after October 1st got tangled in a partisan fight - this time over electric cars and disaster aid. NPR's congressional correspondent David Welna joins us. David, thanks for being with us.

DAVID WELNA: Sure, Scott.

SIMON: And explain to us, please, the link between any kind of car and money for the victims of weather disasters.

WELNA: Well, you know, there's very little, if anything, connecting them, although some might say that electric cars are part of the remedy for the global warming that many say exacerbates these weather disasters. But in this legislation, those cars are actually tied to disaster aid because House Republicans decided to lop off a big chunk of money from a loan guaranty program for developing electric cars - a program, by the way, that started during the last Bush administration - and to use those savings to help pay for the $3.65 billion for the disaster relief assistance in this bill for FEMA.

SIMON: But if the offsets are that important, why did the Republican leaders in the House come up with only $1.6 billion worth of them when the FEMA funds are beyond three billion as you say?

WELNA: Well, traditionally Congress has never taken money out of other programs to pay for disaster relief. Lawmakers essentially put it on that big credit card as we know as the national debt. But this time some Republicans demanded that every penny of the disaster money be offset by cuts elsewhere. But they could risk having an even bigger fight with Democrats if they cut even more, and they don't want to be the ones taking the blame if that money gets held up. So, they just chose a program a lot of Republicans are quite skeptical about and they took some money from it, though not all of it.

SIMON: The Democratic-run Senate has voted to set aside the bill passed by the House. Do the Democrats risk taking the fall if this dispute doesn't get worked out next week?

WELNA: Well, I think they are running a certain risk that this won't get worked out after the Senate voted to hold up the stopgap funding bill yesterday. Here's what Utah Republican Orrin Hatch had to say:

ORRIN HATCH: I think the Democrats are crazy to do this. I guess, my gosh, you know, everybody knows that monies are going to be there in the end. I mean, we're not going to let communities suffer. Every one of us have problems from time to time.

WELNA: As Hatch says, it's almost unthinkable for members of Congress, whether they're Democrats or Republicans, not to come to the aid of the victims of disaster relief in this country. And I think that's why Senate majority leader Harry Reid seems pretty confident one way or another some kind of a deal will get worked out next week. Here's Reid after yesterday's Senate rejection of the House bill.

HARRY REID: Everyone once in a while needs a little cooling off period. The government's not shutting down. FEMA's not out of money. We'll come here Monday. More reasonable heads will prevail. And I would hope over the weekend that the four leaders can lead their troops in the right direction.

WELNA: So, with this cooling down period, what Democrats are hoping for is that Republican senators will get an earful from constituents over the weekend and they'll be pressured to vote for Reid's version of the stopgap funding, which keeps the disaster aid in the bill but it does away with the electric car loan offset, which Democrats say would only lead to more job losses.

SIMON: In your explanation, doesn't seem likely that FEMA's going to run out of money. But what about the question of another threat in government shutdown?

WELNA: Well, Senate Republicans are going to be under a certain amount of pressure to go ahead and pass Reid's bill, and that would that the House would have to come back. Actually, both the Senate and House had planned to be out all next week for the Jewish holidays. But, of course, that's not going to happen now. And it would mean, you know, either the House would have to come back and pass the Senate's bill or the Senate would have to relent and go back and approve the bill that they rejected yesterday. And nobody wants a government shutdown. And I think because everybody wants the government funding to continue into the new fiscal year, and for there to be disaster relief money in it for FEMA, I think one way or another, they will find a way to do this just because they were so badly burned by the last showdown over federal funding.

SIMON: NPR's David Welna. Thanks so much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.