In Congress, a Divisive Recipe for Blight

After the latest fight over spending, it's clear that Republicans and Democrats have drifted far apart. Will they ever get along?

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Republicans and Democrats in Congress can't seem to agree on anything these days. Anything, as in the most elemental, basic definition of a government's relationship to its citizens. How basic? How about tax dollars for victims of natural disasters? The recent tug-of-war over disaster funding typifies the core differences and misunderstandings at the heart of so many dollars-and-cents divisions on Capitol Hill.

Republicans cannot understand why Democrats refused to offset at least some of the $3.65 billion in disaster assistance that they sought to provide last week. Republicans are focused on the blight of a $14.7 trillion federal debt and this year's projected $1.6 trillion deficit. Even GOP members from areas still recovering from horrific natural disasters say that it's time to economize.

"We have to prioritize our needs versus our wants," said Rep. Jeffrey Landry, a tea party-inspired freshman whose 3rd District in Louisiana includes Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, both walloped by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "I came to Washington to reduce spending and cut wasteful programs."

Landry fully backed the GOP leadership's push to offset $1.5 billion in emergency disaster assistance by cutting that amount from federal grants to boost development of fuel-efficient vehicles and renewable-energy technology. He considers both programs wasteful. "Why should we give money to those programs instead of to people whose homes were swept away or washed away? It's ridiculous."

Republicans are blinded by the new blight of hard-right politics, Democrats counter, where no issue--not even disaster aid for those in immediate need--enjoys the presumption of bipartisan support. Democrats say they gritted their teeth in the last two years of the Bush presidency (when they controlled the House and Senate) and moved bills raising the debt ceiling and funding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. What's more, in the 112th Congress with Republicans running the House, Democrats have often provided key votes for big legislation.

One insight into the depth of discord is that Republicans and Democrats can't even agree if disaster aid has ever been offset before. Republicans are correct to say that disaster funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been offset with cuts from other federal programs. This happened even after Katrina. Democrats are correct, however, that only once before have funds for FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund been offset. Bottom line: These talking points flew while disaster victims waited for federal assistance. But House Republicans have no regrets. "None," a top House GOP aide said. "It's unbelievable--you can't get $1.5 billion in offsets with the debt and deficit as high as they are."

Meanwhile, the fight over the continuing resolution dug new partisan trenches. The first House attempt to pass the CR failed, 230-195, on Sept. 21 when Democrats sat on their hands, providing only six aye votes. GOP vote-counters had expected no fewer than 20. When 48 Republicans also voted against, the bill went down, and the majority had an ugly defeat on its hands.

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Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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