WASHINGTON — With costs continuing to rise for heating oil, natural gas and electricity, social service advocates fear an upcoming crisis for families struggling to make ends meet this fall and winter.
Yet work in Congress to increase government help for heating and cooling bills has been caught up in the wider political debate about gas prices and oil drilling, worrying some advocates that poor residents will suffer if more money doesn't come through.
"We had a major setback over the weekend," said Bob Ott, director of Adult Services for Centre County.
A Senate bill to add $2.5 billion to a government program for low-income families failed in a procedural vote in Washington on Saturday. It would have doubled the pot of money for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP.
Ott said he was excited about the bill’s prospects and had sent information packets to both U.S. Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa. Brandon Avila, spokesman for the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, an advocacy group based in Washington, said he’s concerned both about more heat-related deaths this summer and cold-related deaths in the coming winter.
"It’s really a recipe for disaster unless they get more funding," Avila said. "This is becoming a health issue for low-income people who have fixed incomes."
The bill, the Warm in Winter and Cool in Summer Act, would have brought another $210 million for heating assistance for Pennsylvania residents. That would have been an increase of 70 percent, Ott said.
It needed 60 votes to move forward but failed, 50-35.
The largely Democratic bill had 13 Republican co-sponsors, including Specter. But he voted against the measure after Republican leaders vowed to block any Democratic energy measure that didn’t focus on gas prices.
Specter said he has been a staunch supporter of the LIHEAP program, but that he thinks Congress should focus first on oil prices. "It's going to be a job to explain it (to constituents). There is no doubt about that," Specter said on the Senate floor. "But I am willing to undertake that risk."
Casey, also a co-sponsor, supported the measure, saying the money would have been "a potentially life-saving benefit." The LIHEAP program offers grants for low-income households to help cover heating and cooling costs, but advocates say it isn't keeping pace with rising costs.
Heating oil is well above $4 a gallon, and a minimum 100-gallon delivery would cost a household more than $400, Ott said.
The grants for families in crisis are now limited to $300.
Last year, the program helped 3,200 families with payments averaging $245. More than 1,100 families also received crisis payments, Ott said. Now, Ott and others worry about how to help low-income residents in the coming months.
"We’re getting some calls from clients stating, 'What are we going to do?' " said Matt Hall, executive director of Interfaith Mission in State College. His agency runs the county's fuel bank, which last year helped 300 households with the assistance of other local charities. The agencies spent about $80,000.
This year will cost a lot more, he said.
A report from the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association in Washington shows 15.6 million households were more than 30 days past due on their energy bills this spring, up more than a million from a year earlier. That means they are threatened with having their energy shut off. In Pennsylvania, 650,000 households were in arrears — a 30 percent jump over the previous year.
"It's like two societies," said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the association. "We talk about how we’re all suffering equally. It's not true. ... For poor families, this is very scary."
Wolfe and others had focused their efforts for months on the Senate bill that failed last weekend. Now advocates are turning their attention to other pieces of legislation for the LIHEAP funding.
"We will continue to fight for this," said U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent sponsoring the bill. "We have an energy emergency." There is talk in the House of Representatives of adding the money to a second economic stimulus package, which could be considered in September. A continuing resolution to carry the current budget through January could include some money for the program.
Advocates also are trying to persuade President Bush to release $120 million now being held back by the administration in case of emergency. Bush threatened last weekend to veto the Sanders bill, saying the money isn’t yet needed.
And other LIHEAP advocates say they don’t want to increase government costs without first tackling the larger issue of oil prices and energy production.
U.S. Rep. John Peterson, R-Pleasantville, supports LIHEAP, but he would not be in favor of a second economic stimulus, said Patrick Creighton, Peterson’s spokesman.
Instead, Peterson included funding for the program in a bill last year to open the Outer Continental Shelf to offshore drilling. "We've got to look at the issue of energy costs," Creighton said. "If we don't get that under control, we're going to be putting more money into LIHEAP every year."
But advocates say emergency heating assistance is a short-term need that ought to be handled separately from long-term energy problems. "It's disappointing we got tied in with drilling issues,"Wolfe said.
Ott agreed. "Because the Senate bill failed, we're back to having nightmares again," he said.