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Standoff over disaster aid threatens federal shutdown

A dispute over disaster aid has quickly grown into another partisan standoff that threatens to shut down the federal government, with no clear indication of how Congress will end the stalemate.

The Senate on Friday overwhelmingly rejected a House-passed bill to temporarily fund the government and provide emergency aid for victims of Hurricane Irene and other recent disasters -- but also cut green energy programs supported by Democrats. The Senate voted 59-36 against the measure.

A compromise proposal is scheduled for a vote in the Senate on Monday, but it is likely to fail. Both sides may negotiate over the weekend as a shutdown looms on Oct. 1.

The issue is more urgent for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which said its disaster aid accounts will run out of money by Tuesday. FEMA has been assisting communities hit by floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and other disasters this year.

Governors from hard-hit disaster states urged Congress to put partisanship aside and help Americans in need.

"Federal assistance for the victims of storms and floods should be beyond politics," said a letter from Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, both Republicans, and Democrats Andrew Cuomo of New York and Bev Perdue of North Carolina. "We urge this Congress to move swiftly to ensure that disaster aid through FEMA and other federal programs is sufficient to start rebuilding now."

FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said a statement Friday that "if Congress does allow the balance of the Disaster Relief fund to reach zero" the agency would be forced to temporarily shut down its disaster recovery and assistance operations, including aid given to individuals.

Congress left for the weekend with no clear endgame in sight. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., called for a "cooling off period" as senators considered a compromise that would reduce the amount of additional disaster aid to $3.65 billion, a level the GOP prefers and about half the amount the Senate approved earlier this month.

But the proposal also removes offsetting budget cuts to help pay for the aid, which means Republican support is unlikely.

"I'm confident if we work together we can find a solution," Reid said. Senate Democratic candidates were headed to a weekend retreat in South Carolina.

But House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, sounded doubtful a compromise could be found after talking with Reid early Friday in the deeply divided atmosphere.

"There wasn't much progress made," Boehner said. He acknowledged the difficulty he faced in passing the House bill as his conservative flank wanted even deeper spending cuts.

Congress has found itself in a fight neither side expected to have so soon after the summer debt ceiling battle and an earlier impasse over budgets that threatened a government shutdown in April.

Disaster aid has traditionally been a bipartisan issue, but with federal deficits a top priority for conservatives who power the GOP majority, Republicans have dug in on their demands for spending cuts.

The Republican position has infuriated Democrats, especially as GOP leaders made deeper cuts to energy programs Thursday night to draw more votes from its conservative flank.

"Every chance they get, they want to hold the government hostage," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

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