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Senate approves $6.9 billion in disaster aid

By Deborah Charles

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic-led Senate on Thursday sent the House of Representatives a measure to fund disaster aid by twice as much as the House wants to spend -- laying the groundwork for another political showdown.

The Senate voted 62-37 to approve $6.9 billion to cover disaster response until October 2012.

But the measure is unlikely to pass the Republican-led House, which prefers to offset spending increases with cuts in another part of the budget.

After a record year for natural disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is running short on funds to help victims of hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires.

FEMA had to suspend some payments for longer-term projects to have enough money to distribute to victims of last month's Hurricane Irene and other recent disasters. President Barack Obama has asked for $5.1 billion to boost FEMA's coffers.

Lawmakers from both parties say they want to help the disaster victims in a year in which Obama has declared a disaster in 48 of the 50 states. They just disagree on how.

"This is the only vehicle that we have before us to do long-term full funding for disaster relief," said Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. "Sending a strong vote from the Senate today will help us negotiate with the House."

Next week the House will consider a proposal that includes $1 billion in disaster aid to be made available right away. The money would be included in a must-pass spending bill to keep the government running past September 30.

House Republicans said the $1 billion would be offset by cutting a program that promotes electric vehicles.

Landrieu criticized the House plan as being a short-term proposal that will just partially fund a limited number of disaster relief programs for six weeks.

"You cannot budget for disaster relief in six-week segments," Landrieu said in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner. "Disaster recovery does not work that way ... . You cannot rebuild communities with six-week plans."

Senators from both parties, particularly those from disaster-struck states, have said recovery aid should not get tangled up in the partisan bickering that has dominated Washington budget talks this year.

(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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