WASHINGTON Congress headed toward a showdown on disaster aid on Tuesday as the Democratic-controlled Senate advanced a measure that is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled House.
Lawmakers from both parties say they want to ensure victims of tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters get the help they need but the money could get tripped up in the spending debate that has dominated Washington this year.
Republicans want extra disaster aid to be offset by spending cuts if possible to avoid deepening the country's fiscal problems. Democrats say budget concerns should not be a factor during one of the most extreme years for weather in U.S. history.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will need an extra $5.1 billion to cover disaster aid, according to the White House. FEMA could run out of money in the coming weeks and has already suspended some rebuilding efforts to ensure that victims of Hurricane Irene get immediate help.
The Senate voted, 61-38, to take up a measure that will include $6.9 billion in disaster aid -- enough to cover disaster response efforts until October 2012.
"It's time for Republicans to prove, for the first time this Congress, that they are willing to put politics aside for the good of the American people," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor.
Eight Republicans, many from disaster-hit states, voted with the Democrats. The bill could clear the Senate in the next several days.
Meanwhile, House Republicans prepared a measure that would include about $1 billion to cover FEMA's disaster-aid activity for the next several months.
Republicans offset that money by cutting a program that promotes electric vehicles. They will look for further budget cuts in coming months to cover the additional disaster aid, an aide said.
That bill will come up for a vote in the House next week, according to House Republican Leader Eric Cantor.
"Its important that we get the relief to people who need it -- no one's holding any money hostage," Cantor told reporters. "I also think we can do so in a responsible way."
Much of the northeastern U.S. coast suffered flooding from Hurricane Irene last month while Texas has been struggling with drought and wildfires this summer. In May tornadoes devastated parts of Alabama and Missouri.
(Editing by Bill Trott)