Monday, March 06, 2006

Lott on Low-Income Heating Pleas: "I thought we were having global warming."

How cruel and indifferent is Republican Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi?

With a bipartisan alliance that included Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed and moderate Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine arguing passionately in favor of badly-needed emergency funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Lott took to the microphone to give his take on providing warm homes to the elderly and disabled.

“What is it we are not going to give people for free? Is there any limit? Is there any limit to the amount of money?” asked Lott, adding snidely “I thought we were having global warming.

The occasion was Senate debate and a roll call vote last week on $1 billion in funding for LIHEAP, which has been woefully under-funded since falling under the knife of Bush-administration budget cuts. LIHEAP was authorized by Congress to receive $5.1 billion in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, but only $2.2 billion was appropriated in fiscal year 2006 thanks to the president’s Deficit Reduction Act.

Despite soaring energy prices that have placed already-struggling people in even more trouble this winter, Team Bush decided in December that it was more important to give more tax cuts to the wealthy than to fund home heating for the poor.

Not to be outdone by Lott’s callousness, Republican John Ensign of Nevada, whined about the dangers of increasing the deficit by heating the homes of the elderly, despite having voted for every budget-busting tax cut placed before the Senate.

“There are those of us who believe that deficits are real. They are absolutely real,” said Ensign. “People get up and talk about them all the time. But when it comes right down to whether you are willing to make tough choices instead of just increasing the spending and passing that debt on to the next generation, they aren't willing to offer other spending cuts so that we are not increasing the deficit.”

Fortunately, warmer hearts prevailed and the Snowe-sponsored legislation (S. 2320) passed Thursday by a vote of 66-31, with most Republicans voting against it.

“The current low-income fuel assistance program has not had an increase in real dollar terms since 1983,” said Snowe, who has voted with the Democrats on every previous attempt to fund the program. “Let there be no mistake about the fact that this program is vital. It is significant. It is essential to so many of the families in my State and across the country. The urgency of this legislation has escalated to an emergency.”

Snowe’s colleague from Maine, Republican Susan Collins, supported the legislation in more real-life terms.

“I want my colleagues to understand exactly what is at stake here,” said Collins. “Early Tuesday morning, my State suffered a terrible tragedy--three people, including a woman and her 10-year-old son, died when their house caught fire and burned to the ground. There was the most deadly fire in Maine in 6 years. They lived in Limestone, ME, a town in northern Maine. On the night of the fire, temperatures were below zero. The family had run out of heating oil, and as a result, was using wood stoves to provide the heat. According to the firefighters, the fire started near one of the wood stoves in the kitchen. This is literally a matter of life and death.”

Jack Reed and Democrat John Kerry tried on many occasions in 2005 to pass more ambitious LIHEAP funding measures – for $3.1 billion and $2.9 billion – but were shot down each time by the GOP. While the measure passed last week must still go to the House for approval, it appears that having Republican sponsorship and a much lower price tag might allow some help to get to the needy before winter ends.

Said Reed in a powerful argument for the bill’s passage: “We have a chance to help people, a last chance to help people this year who are literally freezing. It we do not take it, shame on us.”