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Disaster Aid Hangs In Balance Of House Dust-Up

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There's a test under way on Capitol Hill. The question is whether Congress can take on some of its most basic functions without getting tied up in partisan knots.

At stake is funding for disaster relief and the continued operation of the entire federal government beyond next week.

On Wednesday night, something dramatic and unexpected happened on the House floor: A measure that was supposed to pass failed, 195-230. It was a temporary funding measure to keep the government operating for another couple of months. It also included $3.7 billion in urgently needed disaster assistance funds.

Both of those things have been routine in the past. Not this time.

"Trying to get 535 people to come to an agreement on anything around here is difficult, but we've known that going in," he said. "We'll work our way through this. I've always been confident that we'll be able to come to an agreement and we will."

Speaker In A Tough Spot

So, what happened here? For a measure to pass in the House, almost all of the Republicans — who are in the majority — need to support it. Or if not enough Republicans are onboard, then leaders need to get Democratic support. In this case, they got neither.

Forty-eight conservative Republicans and almost all of the Democrats voted against it.

The measure didn't cut enough spending to satisfy Tea Party Republicans. And it offset the disaster funding with cuts to a clean car manufacturing program, which turned off Democrats.

"We should not go down a different path now than we have done on natural disaster assistance — that's why we fought so hard against what the Republicans put forth," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said.

All of this leaves Boehner in a tough position.

"Does it make my life a little more difficult? Yes, it does," he said Thursday.

Boehner could tack to the right to pick up conservative GOP votes, but risk passing a measure the Democratic Senate won't support. Or he could tack to the left to get Democratic votes, alienating members of his own party.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) knows what he'd like.

"I hope now that they will move toward the center instead of moving toward the Tea Party more than they have," he said.

Worries About Disaster Relief

To find political posturing in the U.S. Capitol is not remarkable. What's remarkable is that it has even seeped into something as universally supported as disaster funding.

"Historically we have stood together," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). "Democrats and Republicans put politics aside when it came to disaster aid. We have to do the same thing now. This is an act of God that requires us to step up as Democrats and Republicans and recognize the need in every community and try to get this done as quickly as possible."

In recent days, Democrats and Republicans in both houses have accused each other of playing politics. But for Mark Rohr, the city manager in Joplin, Mo., who wins and who loses this fight doesn't much matter.

"In my estimation, there's two primary things that the federal government should do," Rohr said. "No. 1 is national defense and No. 2 is assist cities and other government entities in recovery from natural disasters."

When the tornado tore through Joplin in May, it left behind thousands of destroyed homes and 3 million cubic yards of debris. Rohr says federal disaster assistance has been critical, and Joplin will need that help for a long time to come.

"We certainly hope it gets worked out, and that we get the assistance we need over the long term," he said.

Judging from the mood around the Capitol, Rohr will probably get what he wants. But probably not without a little more political gamesmanship first.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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