IN PICTURES: US natural disasters of 2011
On Friday, Senate Democrats quashed a funding bill because it included $1.6 billion in offsetting cuts to a Department of Energy program that promotes the manufacturing of "green" automobiles. On Monday, Senate Democrats are set to respond with a bill that would supplement FEMA funding without budget offsets. But Republicans likely have enough votes to prevent the bill from getting a filibuster-proof majority.
The FEMA amounts are relatively small – $3.6 billion, or about .04 percent of the federal budget. But the fact that they threaten to hold up passage of the $1 trillion spending bill to keep the government fully funded until Nov. 18 has given them outsize importance.
The debate over FEMA funding "really represents the continued dismantling of the welfare state, where government is placing much more responsibility on people to take care of their basic needs – and it's problematic," says James Fraser, who studies disaster mitigation at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "In many ways, the debate in Congress now is a red herring, a distraction from what's really at stake, which is the lives of many people. The debate seems a little bit misplaced."
In some of those disaster-stricken locales, promised relief funds are already on indefinite hold. Nashville's promise of flood-plain buyouts – to the tune of some $30 million – is tied up because FEMA can't pay what it promised.