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Senators move to avert government shutdown

WASHINGTON — Spurred on by the White House, divided US Senators moved late Monday to avert a government shutdown at week’s end and defuse an angry battle over disaster relief in Hurricane Irene‘s wake.

But the emerging deal did not provide any immediate money for a key Federal Emergency Management Agency fund set to run dry, as Democratic aides said FEMA had indicated it could limp through to Saturday, when a new fiscal year dawns.

The Democratic-held US Senate voted 79-12 to approve a stopgap spending measure, known as a “continuing resolution” or “CR,” to keep the government of the world’s richest country open to November 18.

It also approved a short-term continuing resolution to October 4, which must now clear the House of Representatives to avert a shutdown.

That Republican-led chamber, which left Washington Friday on a scheduled week-long break, was expected to try to approve the short-term measure in a special voice vote that does not require all members to present.

The House was then expected to hold a full debate and vote on the longer measure when it returns next week.

But under the terms of the labyrinthine arrangement, a single representative of either party could derail the plan, though Republican leadership aides seemed confident that would not happen.

The brinkmanship came barely two months after a bruising political battle over raising the ceiling on US borrowing brought the country to the brink of default and cost Washington its formerly top-notch credit rating.

Even if successful, the deal merely postpones a pitched political battle over government spending to the run up to November 18, when Republicans close to the “Tea Party” movement were expected to push for deeper cuts.

“This is a basic function of Congress. They ought to be able to handle this,” President Barack Obama’s chief spokesman Jay Carney said, calling it “inconceivable” that a partisan breakdown would shutter key agencies.

And “it should not be so difficult, nor should essential assistance to victims of terrible natural disasters be held up for political reasons or ideological reasons,” Carney said aboard Air Force One.

The battle came as a new Gallup poll found that 69 percent of Americans had little or no confidence in Congress, an all-time high and up from 63 percent in 2010, while 57 percent had little or no confidence in the government’s ability to solve domestic problems.

The compromise kept the House’s level of FEMA funding for 2012, about $2.65 billion for the coming fiscal year, while stripping out both one billion dollars in immediate cash for the agency and spending cuts Republicans had demanded.

Democrats had opposed the offsetting cuts — which targeted clean-energy programs, including one that lent money to the bankrupt Solyndra solar-panel company with ties to the White House — as likely to cost some 50,000 jobs.

Republicans support getting Americans suffering in the wake of natural disasters the help they need — and doing it in a fiscally-responsible way,” said a spokesman for Republican House Speaker John Boehner, Michael Steel.

“If it weren’t for House Republicans‘ efforts, the American taxpayers would have been on the hook for even more reckless borrowing by Washington Democrats,” Steel.

FEMA said that its special contingency fund, drained by devastating heartland tornadoes, Texas wildfires and Hurricane Irene, had barely $114 million dollars left, perhaps enough to get to Thursday or Friday.

“If there were ever a time when we have the obligation to do the job at hand, it’s here,” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said hours before the votes, insisting that “there’s no more time to waste.”

The Senate earlier this month passed a bill with nearly $7 billion in disaster aid, including an immediate half-billion dollars for the FEMA fund.

The House last week passed, in a largely party-line 219-203 vote, a rival measure that included $3.65 billion in disaster aid with about $1 billion for the fund, with offsetting cuts.

The Senate voted 59-36 on Friday to set aside the House measure.

On Monday, senators also rejected a Reid bill that would have taken the House level of funding but done away with the offsets in a 54-35 vote that fell shy of the 60 senators needed to approve it.

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