Congress approves budget stopgap

Congress approved a six-month budget stopgap measure Thursday that averts a government shutdown and tweaks the implementation of roughly $85 billion in federal budget cuts, called the sequester, that are still going into effect.

The budget resolution that cleared the U.S. House on a 318-109 vote includes several hurricane-related funding fixes for southern Louisiana, including setting up a third-party arbitration system that could help Livingston Parish resolve its $60 million debris removal fight with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The nearly $1 trillion budget bill also includes a funding formula correction for FEMA to forgive nearly $300 million in outstanding community disaster loans from hurricanes Katrina and Rita that have continued to hover mostly over Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes, but also over Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes.

Despite the six-month fix, Republicans and Democrats remain in a stalemate over a long-term budget solution after the House on Thursday also approved another version of the federal budget by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that is intended to eliminate the federal deficit in a decade and repeal the health care law known as “Obamacare.”

The Ryan budget was approved on a partisan 221-207 vote without a single Democrat in support.

The Ryan budget is considered dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but the Senate budget plan currently under debate that includes new tax revenues is likewise expected to go nowhere in the GOP-controlled House.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, voted against both the Ryan budget — he said it decimates health care, education and more — and the six-month budget resolution. The latter he said he voted against mostly on principle.

Richmond was the only member of the Louisiana House delegation to oppose the Ryan budget. He and Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden, were the only two to vote against the six-month resolution.

“We’re really doing the American people a disservice governing the country six months at a time,” Richmond said with one fiscal crisis after another. Richmond’s district stretches up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to include much of Baton Rouge.

Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, voted for both budget plans and said he saw Thursday as progress. The continuing budget resolution heading to President Barack Obama for his signature at least sets in place $85 billion in annual budget reductions, he said.

The hurricane-related provisions for southern Louisiana were added to the six-month budget resolution as part of the Department of Homeland Security funding bill by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. FEMA is part of Homeland Security and Landrieu oversees the department’s budget as chairwoman of its funding subcommittee.

Landrieu said she wanted to help Livingston Parish recoup its losses five years after Gustav and provide a third-party arbitration solution if FEMA refuses to rehear the parish’s appeals for debris removal costs.

“The long delay has had a serious financial impact on the parish and local contractors, many of whom are small and family-owned,” Landrieu said in an email response.

Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks said he remains upset over what he calls the efforts of a few FEMA officials to punish the parish. “It (arbitration) certainly gives us a route — a mechanism we can use — if we don’t get a resolution,” he said.

The six-month budget resolution was previously approved by the Senate on a 73-26 vote, with Landrieu in support and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., opposed.