Six months after a budget stand-off that came within minutes of shutting the federal government, and barely eight weeks after Congress came within a whisker of defaulting on the nation's debts, the supposedly routine business of governing the US is once again being threatened by political wrangling.
A dispute over a tiny fraction of the federal budget has blown up into a full budget crisis, with the result that disaster relief for victims of Hurricane Irene and the devastating tornadoes of earlier this year could be shut off from today. Without a deal, large parts of the federal government may have to begin shutting down from this weekend.
What would normally have been a procedural vote to keep the government funded into November has become the latest flashpoint for the Tea Party movement of fiscally conservative Republicans, who argued that even disaster relief funding must be paid for by offsetting cuts elsewhere in the government's budget. The disputed funds amount to less than $4bn out of a budget bill that would allocate about $1 trillion of government spending.
Democrats are refusing to concede to Republican demands for cuts to government programmes that provide lending for green energy companies and car companies developing new fuel efficient technologies. Congress, whose members would otherwise have returned home this week, were still in Washington battling over the issue yesterday.
Tea Party members in the lower House of Representatives unexpectedly killed the first attempt to pass a funding bill, which originally had support from the Republican leadership, and pushed through a second bill that included quid pro cuts. The Democrat-controlled Senate killed that bill last Friday. The Senate was last night scheduled to vote on the original funding bill, even though it has no chance of becoming law.
Mark Warner, a senior Senate Democrat, speaking on CNN, said the party was simply asking "why should we rebuild schools in Iraq on the credit card but expect that rebuilding schools in Joplin, Missouri, have to be paid for in a way unlike any of the previous disaster assistance?"
As the dispute continued, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was scrambling to stretch its budget to the end of the week. The repeat threat of shutdowns this year has sapped the public's already limited patience with Congress. Its approval rating is at an all-time low of 12 per cent.
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