WASHINGTON Low-income U.S. families planning to rely on a federal program to help pay expensive heating bills this winter are in jeopardy after President George W. Bush on Tuesday vetoed spending legislation that would have provided the financial assistance.
Bush rejected the compromise appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, which also contained $2.4 billion in funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, commonly known as LIHEAP.
Bush's veto puts "the health and well-being of millions of families at risk this winter," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, chairman of a House Education and Labor subcommittee, which held a hearing on Tuesday on the LIHEAP program.
"With energy costs consistently on the rise, more and more families must make the tough decision whether to heat their homes or put food on the table," McCarthy said. "We'll fight for the money."
With prices forecast to be up for all heating fuels this winter, the poor will need LIHEAP assistance more than ever.
The Energy Department forecasts that households that use heating oil will spend an average 26 percent or $375 more this winter compared to last winter, with costs for propane expected to be 20 percent or $273 higher, natural gas up 11 percent or $87 and electricity 3 percent or $22 more expensive.
Low-income families spend on average about 15 percent of their income on home energy bills, compared to 3.4 percent for all other households, said Mark Wolfe, who heads a group representing state energy directors.
"If energy prices increase at a faster rate or we have a colder winter than projected, then without an additional increase in federal funding, the purchasing power of LIHEAP will be dramatically diminished," he told lawmakers.
The bill that Bush vetoed would have boosted the LIHEAP budget by about $250 million. Even with the additional funds, the program would have had enough money to cover only about 16 percent of the estimated 38 million poor households eligible for help.
Wolfe said LIHEAP's budget, which also covers summer cooling bills, should almost be doubled to $5.1 billion a year to keep up with inflation in energy prices and to help more people.
David Manning, speaking on behalf of the American Gas Association, also called for Congress to increase the LIHEAP budget, despite the Bush administration's opposition.
"We believe it is absolutely essential to increase our nation's home energy commitment to America's most vulnerable citizens," Manning said.
For his part, Bush justified his veto of the spending bill that would have funded LIHEAP, telling a crowd in New Albany, Indiana on Tuesday that the legislation was $10 billion over budget and paid for wasteful projects like a prison museum and a sailing school taught aboard a catamaran.
"Congress needs to cut out that pork, reduce the spending and send me a responsible measure that I can sign into law," Bush said.
In the same speech a few moments later, Bush also expressed his concern about high energy prices.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)