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Snowbelt Senators Say Stand-Alone Emergency LIHEAP Bill in the Works

Three Republican senators from snowbelt states have been assured by Senate leaders that a vote will be held shortly after Congress returns later this month on a stand-alone emergency supplemental bill to provide $2 billion in additional funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) this winter.

Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota have received assurances from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada that a vote on emergency LIHEAP legislation will occur after the Senate takes up the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court this month, Snowe said. Senate confirmation hearings on Alito are scheduled to begin Jan. 9.

"I am pleased that [the] Senate leadership has rightly agreed to hold a vote to increase federal assistance for the LIHEAP program at the start of the second session of the 109th Congress," she noted. Absent emergency LIHEAP funds, "this winter could bring a disastrous situation for countless Mainers and Americans faced with high fuel prices and insufficient LIHEAP funding."

The senators negotiated the deal after the Senate in late December stripped out $2 billion in supplemental LIHEAP spending from the defense appropriations bill. Republican leaders took out supplemental LIHEAP monies after another provision in the bill opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) suffered a stinging defeat at the hands of Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans (see NGI, Dec. 26, 2005).

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), the leading ANWR drilling proponent in the Senate, agreed to include supplemental LIHEAP funding in the defense appropriations bill in exchange for certain New England senators (Snowe and Collins included) supporting his bid to open ANWR. But once ANWR -- and the revenues associated with ANWR leasing -- were rejected, there was no longer any additional funding for LIHEAP in the measure.

The supplemental funding was to be in addition to the base appropriation of $2.16 billion that was approved for LIHEAP energy assistance as part of the Senate's Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill for fiscal year 2006. The $2.16 billion was about $20 million less than what was approved for 2005 -- $2.18 billion -- and was a far cry from the maximum amount authorized for LIHEAP ($5.1 billion) under the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

In related action, the Bush Administration last Thursday said it released $100 million in emergency contingency funds to states, Native American tribes and U.S. territories to assist low-income customers with their energy bills this winter, along with $633 million in block grant funds to states.

The funds will be administered by the Administration for Children and Families through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The federal government has $101 million in remaining emergency LIHEAP monies to help out during crises this winter, according to the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS).

The HHS in mid-October distributed $1.3 billion in regular block grants to help families with their winter energy bills, and allocated $27.25 million in early September to states most impacted by Hurricane Katrina.

Nearly five million low-income households each year receive LIHEAP assistance to pay for home heating and insulation in the winter and air-conditioning in the warmer months, HHS said.

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