If the Senate could summon some wisdom, it would interrupt its mud wrestling over partisan placebos for the gas crisis long enough to debate something real: emergency help for the nation's poorest families who face skyrocketing home heating costs this winter.
The Democratic leadership is wisely aiming for a procedural vote in the next day or two that would free up time to debate a badly needed measure to double the existing Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program to $5.1 billion. With 50 co-sponsors, including 12 Republicans, the measure is a must-pass priority if Congress is to have any credibility in facing the energy crisis with something more than the hot air of campaign rhetoric.
Utility analysts warn that the price of heating oil could double this winter in the hardest-hit regions, while natural-gas costs could shoot up 50 percent. This can only mean a deepening crisis for the poorest Americans — the disabled and retired on fixed incomes and impoverished families with children.
Close to six million households were helped last year, but the demand is growing as costs rise and more Americans slip deeper into poverty. Accordingly, the average grant has dropped nationally from $349 to $305. This meets only a fraction of true need and leaves recipients in greater danger of utility cutoffs as they scrimp even more than they have already on food and medicine.
Lawmakers should be mindful that the emergency measure is entitled the Warm in Winter and Cool in Summer Act — a notice that the need extends well beyond frigid northeastern winters. The poor in Arizona can turn to the program this summer to deal with dangerous stretches in the 110 degree range and electricity cutoffs.
What is called for is one of the nation's scarcest resources — bipartisanship in the Capitol. The energy crisis is a confounding challenge. But helping the poorest Americans right now with basic survival should be the first priority, even if they are not visible on the nightly news every night, griping at the gas pump.