The burn scar of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire in New Mexico pictured June 9, 2022. (Patrick Lohmann/Source New Mexico)
WASHINGTON — Congress is on track to approve billions in funding this week to help offset rising home heating and cooling costs as well as boost aid for communities recovering from natural disasters.
The package, unveiled overnight, would provide $2.5 billion in assistance for the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire that scorched much of New Mexico earlier this year, $2 billion in Community Development Block Grant disaster relief funding for dozens of states hit by natural disasters during 2021 and 2022, and $1 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
“No family should have to choose between ‘heat or eat’ in Vermont or in any community across the country,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said in a statement announcing the agreement.
“The third hottest summer on record had already put a strain on LIHEAP funding, so I am glad that we were able to secure these new resources before the cold of winter sets in,” he added.
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U.S. lawmakers added the funding to a short-term spending bill that must pass before the current law lapses Friday at midnight.
The legislation, if approved, would keep the federal government up and running through Dec. 16 while congressional leaders and the White House attempt to work out a full-year spending agreement.
The $2.5 billion for the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire Assistance account would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send the congressional spending committees a report on how the agency is spending the money within 90 days of the bill becoming law.
FEMA would then be required to send those two panels a report detailing its spending every 90 days until all the money is spent.
The package would also create an Office of Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire Claims within FEMA “to compensate victims of the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, for injuries resulting from the fire” and “to provide for the expeditious consideration and settlement of claims for those injuries.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hinted during a visit to Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Monday that the spending package, unreleased at the time, would include aid for people and business owners who lost property, or suffered injuries, during the fire.
“This is an extraordinary assault on the environment that is the clear responsibility of the government,” Pelosi told members of a roundtable Monday, according to Source New Mexico. “When something happens like a natural disaster, there is a compact between the people and the government that we will be there. But we have to be there in a timely fashion, in a way that facilitates benefits coming forward.”
New Mexico Sen. Ben Ray Luján tweeted Tuesday morning that he was “encouraged” to see the legislation that he and other lawmakers from the state sponsored included in the funding package.
“This wildfire was caused by the federal government,” he wrote. “It’s the government’s moral obligation to make sure our communities are made whole and to take all precautions to prevent something like this from happening again.”
The entire spending package, which includes more than $12 billion for Ukraine’s war effort against Russia, is expected to clear Congress this week, though it will likely experience a small delay Tuesday evening over objections to permitting reform legislation from West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III.
The U.S. Senate likely doesn’t have the 60 votes needed to move past a procedural vote, after both Republicans and Democrats expressed frustration with the bill.
If the vote fails, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, could move to strip out Manchin’s permitting reform bill and hold another vote.
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