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Despite Run-Up in Gas Prices, Congress Appropriates Fewer LIHEAP Dollars This Winter

The American Gas Association (AGA), which represents gas utilities, had its fingers crossed that Congress last week would approve a total of $4.2 billion in funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) for fiscal 2006. But when the legislative dust settled late Wednesday, the Senate funded the program at only half that level and below what it had approved in fiscal 2005, despite record-breaking home heating costs this winter.

The Senate last Wednesday approved $2.16 billion in LIHEAP energy assistance as part of the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill for fiscal year 2006. The spending bill initially had earmarked about $2.2 billion for LIHEAP, but it was included among the domestic spending programs that were the target of a 1% across-the-board reduction, said AGA spokeswoman Daphne Magnuson.

The biggest blow came on the same day when the Senate stripped out $2 billion in supplemental LIHEAP spending from the defense appropriations measure (see related story). Republican leaders took this step after a provision opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) suffered a stinging defeat at the hands of Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), the leading ANWR proponent in the Senate, agreed to include supplemental LIHEAP funding in the military spending bill in exchange for certain New England senators supporting his bid to open ANWR. But once ANWR -- and the revenues associated with ANWR leasing -- were rejected, there was no additional funding for LIHEAP in the measure. The House passed the LIHEAP-absent spending bill last Thursday.

The approved LIHEAP funding for fiscal 2006 is far short of the maximum amount that was authorized by Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 ($5.1 billion).

"The Senate failed to provide any solutions for energy consumers this winter. They stripped out measures to help the needy pay their energy bills and they stripped out measures to increase domestic supplies of energy. This is tragic," said AGA President David N. Parker.

The $2.16 billion in LIHEAP funding approved by the Senate for fiscal year 2006 is about $20 million less than what was approved for 2005 -- $2.18 billion, AGA's Magnuson said. She indicated that the AGA will likely ask lawmakers to release emergency monies for energy assistance, totaling about $20 million, to make up the shortfall.

The federal government's funding of LIHEAP will be enough to reach less than one-fifth of the low-income customers who are eligible to receive assistance with their energy bills this winter, Magnuson said.

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