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House fails to pass spending bill, leaves federal disaster relief money in limbo

The House failed to pass stopgap legislation to fund the government through mid-November in a surprising vote late Wednesday, leaving billions in federal disaster relief money tied up for now -- and putting politicians from disaster-prone states like Florida in a tough place.

Last week, the Senate passed a measure approving $6.9 billion for FEMA, the federal disaster relief agency, with the support of 10 GOP senators, including Florida's Marco Rubio. But House Republican leaders wanted $3.65 billion in disaster aid instead -- and insisted that the funding be paid for, which meant cuts elsewhere in the budget.

House Democrats said disaster relief should be provided immediately, without having to find budget offsets in advance. And some tea-party Republicans opposed the move saying the measure did not include enough cuts.

The House tucked the disaster funding into a bill intended to keep the federal government running past Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins. Lawmakers hope to approve full-year funding by Nov. 18.

The delay in disaster relief funding means about $66 million in long-term recovery projects are on hold for now in Florida. Though the state has not experienced any major hurricanes yet this year (knock wood), some of the relief projects affected are from as far back as Hurricane Katrina.

And now Republicans like Rubio are walking the fine line of advocating for disaster relief while being fiscally conservative.

Outside the Senate chamber Wednesday before the House vote, Rubio said disaster relief projects should be funded and not "held hostage over political wrangling." Funding disaster relief, he said, is a "legitimate and proper" role of the federal government.

But the aid should also be paid for, he argued, saying he voted for the Senate's measure last week because it was the only proposal on the table. With the House's approach as an alternative, and with House Republicans promising to fully fund disaster relief projects in the new fiscal year, Rubio said the House plan made sense.

"I want it to be funded, and it should be offset," he said.

The position taken by Rubio and other GOP senators prompted criticism from Rep. Ted Deutch, a Boca Raton Democrat, who said Senate Republicans were trying to "backpedal."

"Support for life-saving disaster relief funding has always been bipartisan, and it should remain that way," Deutch said in a prepared statement.