WASHINGTON -- Congress took a five-week summer break without deciding whether to provide $615 million in additional money to fight wildfires this year, punting the debate into the fall.
Senate Democrats were unable late Thursday to secure 60 votes to advance a $3.6 billion emergency spending bill for a vote.
The bulk of that money was for the Obama administration to handle the influx of unaccompanied minors along the Southwestern border but it also had $615 million for the U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department to fight fires. That would have eliminated the need for "fire borrowing," or transferring money from other activities including efforts to prevent fires.
Late Thursday, Senate Republicans blocked the $3.6 billion measure, arguing it violated the Senate's budget rules. Critics like Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., opposed the bill saying it would add to the federal debt.
Bigger wildfires are a growing problem, particularly out West. Experts say climate change and other factors such as increasing development along forest edges are to blame.
The congressional debate came during a week when firefighters grappled with 27 large fires in eight Western states.
During floor debate last week, Western Democrats lobbied for the border and wildfire provisions in the emergency spending bill.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the annual cost of fighting fires has gone from $200 million in 1986 to $1.7 billion last year. And California -- which is expected to have a more intense fire season than most other states this year -- has already experienced 4,000 blazes since January, which have burned 52,000 acres, she said.
Forcing the Forest Service and the Interior Department to resort to fire borrowing year after year "makes no sense," Boxer said Wednesday. "We are taking money from the very programs that help reduce the threat of wildfires. . . . As our fire seasons become longer, hotter, and endanger more communities, we must act now to change how wildfire suppression is funded."
Last month, along with requesting emergency money, President Barack Obama asked Congress to add wildfires to the list of natural disasters eligible for disaster assistance. That move would eliminate the need for the government to dip into wildfire-prevention programs to pay ever-increasing firefighting costs.
Contact Raju Chebium at firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @rchebium