Sanders, Welch push for heating aid (Burlington Free Press)

By Erin Kelly, Free Press Washington Writer

WASHINGTON — With only a short time left before Congress adjourns before the November election, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch said their priority is to try to pass legislation to bring $20 million more to Vermont to help struggling residents pay high heating costs this winter.

Sanders, I-Vt., had more than 50 votes to pass the bill in July, but it was blocked by a Republican filibuster that required 60 votes to end. Although the bill had bipartisan support, it was caught up in a dispute between Republicans and Democrats over oil and gas drilling in environmentally sensitive areas.

Sanders now hopes to revive his bill, dubbed the Warm in Winter and Cool in Summer Act, by attaching it to a must-pass piece of federal spending legislation in the final days of the legislative session.

The bill would help poor Americans across the country by nearly doubling federal funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program from about e$1.3 billion a year to more than $2.5 billion a year. In addition to helping families heat their homes in cold states such as Vermont, it would help people cool their homes in states with extremely hot summers.

Current federal funding for the program is down 23 percent from just two years ago, the Vermont lawmakers said.

Heating oil prices are up 35 percent from last year, while applications for help from the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, are up 25 percent.

Although the Vermont delegation announced Wednesday that it helped persuade President Bush to release $2.5 million more in unused home heating relief funds to Vermont, that will not be enough to get the state's residents through the winter, Sanders said.

But delegation aides say that still falls about $20 million short of what would be needed to meet the program goal of providing 60 percent of home heating costs for low-income families.

Welch, who introduced the bill in the House, said the biggest obstacle is the White House. Bush has threatened to veto the legislation because of its high cost.

To get around the veto threat, Welch and Sanders hope to attach it to legislation that Bush would be hard-pressed to veto.

One possibility would be an economic stimulus bill. A safer route, Welch said, may be to include it in a huge federal spending bill, known as a continuing resolution, that Congress is slated to pass before it adjourns. That bill is necessary to keep the government funded and operating at current spending levels.

"The winter heating crisis is our Category 5 storm," said Welch, D-Vt. "I'm making this argument repeatedly to my colleagues. We were there for the Midwest flood victims and the Gulf Coast hurricane victims. Now we need them."

Sanders said he was encouraged by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's recent statement that he wants to address the issue before Congress adjourns. The target adjournment date is Friday, but congressional leaders have said they may stay longer because of the crisis in the financial markets.

House leaders also have promised to make heating assistance a priority, Welch said.

"If we don't get this done, people may freeze and people will definitely suffer," the congressman said. "We've got to keep pressing this until the last gavel falls."

Richard Moffi, head of Vermont's fuel assistance program, said the state was seeing a record number of applications for fuel assistance, and that the proportion of applications qualifying for the help was growing as well.

Moffi said he is projecting that Vermont households getting help with home heating will jump from 15,400 last winter to about 17,000 this winter.