Harry Reid made some news in his opening remarks, showing that there’s a ton of brinksmanship yet to be played that could move the country in a very real way toward a government shutdown in two weeks.

The bird’s-eye view is this: Congress will not be able to get its Fiscal Year 2012 appropriations done on time. They have a level of spending agreed to in the debt limit deal, though some conservatives want to cut deeper. But they have not put together all the necessary spending bills. So the House will vote on a continuing resolution tomorrow to fund the government through November 18.

But this bill also includes disaster relief funding for the end of FY2011 and for FY2012. Hurricane Irene and a spate of other natural disasters have depleted the FEMA emergency funds. The House bill provides a total of $3.6 billion in disaster relief funding, and offsets $1 billion in FY2011 (and $1.5 billion overall) with cuts to a loan guarantee program encouraging the production of hybrid vehicles. The Senate passed a standalone disaster funding bill that provides almost twice as much, $6.9 billion, in funding, and includes no offsets. Despite the spending cap in the debt limit deal, this is allowable because a waiver was granted for disaster relief funding.

Here’s what Reid said on the Senate floor today:

I was disappointed to see that the House shortchanged the Federal Emergency Management Agency, by failing to provide the funding to adequately help Americans whose lives have been devastated by floods, hurricanes and tornados.

Last week, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill granting FEMA and other agencies that help disaster victims an additional $6.9 billion. That funding will help rebuild after several costly natural disasters, including Hurricane Irene.

Tomorrow, when the Senate receives the House bill to fund the government for six more weeks, we will amend it with the language of the Senate FEMA legislation. This year, President Obama has declared disasters in all but two states, and FEMA is quickly running out of money to help American families and communities recover.

Of course, I know this amendment will enjoy the support of my Republican colleagues, as it did just last week, when a bipartisan group of Senators agreed that helping communities destroyed by natural disasters was too important to let politics get in the way.

As Reid says, his previous disaster relief bill got 62 votes, including 9 from Republicans. You could certainly see them turning around and voting against the continuing resolution with the Senate disaster relief bill appended, but that remains to be seen.

Adding to this intrigue, the House CR may have trouble passing at all without Democratic support. Over 50 conservatives object to the level of spending in the CR, which matches the $1.043 trillion standard from the debt limit deal. They want to use that deal as a ceiling and not a floor. This means House Democrats have some leverage, and Steny Hoyer has signaled they might use it:

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) says Democrats may withhold their support for House legislation to fund the government if Republicans insist on pairing disaster relief with partisan budget cuts.

If Democrats vote against the funding bill en masse, it could leave House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) shy of the votes needed to pass the legislation, and force him to cut a deal on the Democrats’ terms. Because if the impasse isn’t bridged by the end of the month, the government will shut down.

“My presumption is they will offer a [funding bill] which has that offset in it and I think Democrats will be loath to support that effort,” Hoyer told reporters at his weekly Capitol briefing.

Getting Democrats to line up in unison is famously difficult, so Speaker Boehner may be able to cherry-pick the votes he needs to get the CR over the line. But could Democrats block the CR over the disaster relief funding and offsets? Could Senate Democrats successfully switch the disaster relief language, pass the bill and go out of town, jamming the House? Could Senate Republicans side with their House colleagues and block the amended language, leaving Senate Democrats to have to decide on the House bill?

There’s a ton that could go wrong here, and Congress adjourns at the end of the week.

David Dayen

David Dayen

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