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Northeastern senators urge Congress not to cut low-income heating help

December 7, 2011 With the winter fast approaching and Congress' current budget pact set to expire in less than two weeks, three New England senators are leading a new push to preserve federal heating grants for low-income households.

Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) will introduce a bill later this week that would allot $4.7 billion for the program, the same as last year, they said today. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) serves about 9 million households, many of them in the chilly Northeast, where there are older homes that rely heavily on heating oil and propane rather than natural gas.

The budget that the White House requested for fiscal 2012 would cut the heating grants by about 45 percent, to $2.57 billion. Appropriators in the Senate have proposed a budget of $3.6 billion, while their House counterparts have sought $3.4 billion.

Questions about LIHEAP funding for this winter will need to be answered before Dec. 16, when the current continuing resolution to fund the federal government expires.

The current spending bill funded the heating program at the $4.7 billion level, but only about $1.7 billion worth of grants have been distributed so far to avoid giving out money before Congress has the chance to budget for the rest of the fiscal year. New England lawmakers want to make sure the rest of the money goes out.

"It's a matter of Congress not breaking our promise on this issue," Snowe told reporters this morning.

Though the LIHEAP budget has been large by historical standards under the Obama administration, the New England senators said that record heating costs make it an unwise time for austerity.

Prices for heating oil are around $3.80 per gallon in Maine this year, up from an average of about $2.40 per gallon over the past five years. Adjusted for inflation, that is about 21 percent higher than the price spikes that led Congress to create the program in the 1970s, Snowe said.

"This is a basic social safety net program. It affects those who are in the lowest incomes in our society, they desperately need it and the prices are soaring," she said. "It's a matter of life and death."

Read the full story from E&E; News - Greenwire

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