Despite pleas from Republican and Democratic members from Midwest and Plains states hit hard by the recent devastating floods, the House leadership late Thursday rejected a pared-down version of the $8.4 billion FY97 disaster supplemental spending bill.
The leadership then recessed the House to preserve its negotiating leverage on contentious provisions included in the bill, according to leadership and other GOP aides involved in the last-minute negotiations.
House Appropriations Chairman Livingston had prepared a fully offset $1 billion version of the supplemental that included money for disaster relief, the Bosnia mission and the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. But House Majority Leader Armey, who was on the floor and controlled time, refused to recognize Livingston to offer the new bill.
This move came after House members rejected a motion to adjourn the House for the Memorial Day break, 278-67.
Nonetheless, the House was expected to be recessed for three days, then reconvene and recess again through the Memorial Day week. Said one leadership aide, "The simple fact is that several members had problems with the [proposal] and the leadership has got to protect members' rights."
The conference committee on the supplemental has held extensive meetings, but has deadlocked over a few hot-button issues: the automatic continuing resolution, a provision concerning rights-of-way on federal land and language to block the use of sampling data in conducting the 2000 census.
GOP sources made clear that House leaders, and Armey in particular, did not want to clear a must-pass measure minus these provisions and lose the political leverage to force the president to sign it.
But an Armey spokeswoman said Armey and the rest of the leadership merely were responding to North Dakota Gov. Edward Schafer, whom she said had told the leaders "it was his judgment if they got a little bit [of disaster money], now, they wouldn't get a lot later."
"We've been assured that FEMA has plenty of funds to continue its relief efforts and waiting one more week to make sure the bill is accurately done will not slow down the cleanup in any way," the spokeswoman said, adding FEMA has said money would be available at least until July.
Prior to the defeat of the motion to adjourn, which at one point had as many as 102 "yes" votes before members saw the handwriting on the wall and switched their votes to "no," members from flood-ravaged states made impassioned pleas for the House to stay in session and hammer out a compromise supplemental.
With the disaster aid bill bogged down, House Speaker Gingrich earlier Thursday suggested passage of an interim measure providing less money and stripped of add-on provisions opposed by congressional Democrats and the White House.
But in a Thursday afternoon leadership meeting, the decision was made to abandon even that measure.
Sources said Gingrich and Livingston favored action on at least a symbolic disaster aid bill, but Armey and others were opposed.
Earlier, Livingston had said he was drafting his pared-down measure to provide $1 billion to $1.5 billion for disaster relief on the assumption that legislators will renew efforts to pass the overall bill when they return to Washington after the break.
Freshman Rep. John Thune, R-S.D., said on the floor, "I believe that we have made a huge mistake in putting politics and process ahead of people."
Although he and other members from disaster areas conferred with Armey on the floor, Thune told CongressDaily he had "not been given a good explanation" from the leadership about why Livingston's proposal would not work.
Democrats wasted no time blasting the Republican moves, conjuring up memories of the federal government shutdowns of the 104th Congress.
"The same irresponsible crowd who shut down the government is now prepared to shut down disaster relief," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. "I think what is happening here is unconscionable."
House Democrats said they were at a loss to explain why Republican leaders would give up on the stripped-down bill.
"I'm just baffled and frustrated and disgusted by what's happened tonight," said House Appropriations ranking member David Obey, D-Wis.
House Minority Leader Gephardt said that no Democrat would have objected to Livingston's package, and urged Republican leaders to bring it up. "There is no sensible reason not to do this tonight," he said.
Even before the House's failed vote to adjourn, Senate Democrats said they would not allow their chamber to recess. "We are going to oppose the adjournment resolution in the hope that we can at least send some message about how angered we are," said Senate Minority Leader Daschle.
Both chambers will now need to come into session every three days. But no votes are planned in the House until the week of June 2.