By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Senate panel approved $6 billion in disaster aid on Tuesday but it was unclear whether Congress would be able to replenish the government's dwindling relief fund before it runs dry completely.
The government has less than $600 million to help victims of floods, tornadoes, and a hurricane that raked the East Coast last week and has already suspended some payments to ensure that money remains for those who have suffered the most.
Democrats and Republicans have said they will make sure those affected by the disasters will get the help they need, but they will need to act quickly to ensure the Federal Emergency Management Agency does not run out of money in the coming weeks.
The two sides don't agree on how to cover the cost of disaster relief.
Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, have said disaster relief funds should be offset by spending cuts elsewhere to prevent the country's fiscal woes from worsening. Democrats, who control the Senate, say Congress does not usually let budget concerns get in the way of disaster relief.
The dispute will not hold up disaster relief, a Republican aide said.
"People and families affected by these disasters will certainly get what they need from their federal government," said Laena Fallon, a spokeswoman for House Republican Leader Eric Cantor.
The Obama administration's budget chief, Jack Lew, has said the government will need roughly $6.7 billion to cover its known disaster-relief needs.
As Congress returned from a month-long recess, a Senate subcommittee added $6 billion in disaster aid to a bill that funds the Department of Homeland Security, substantially more than the $2.65 billion included in a version that passed the House in June.
NOT ENOUGH MONEY?
Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, who chairs the Homeland Security appropriations subcommittee, said the final total will likely be higher.
"The money is "a substantial down payment and a placeholder for what we're ultimately going to need," she told reporters. "Early indications are that it won't be enough," she added.
That money would apply to the coming fiscal year, which starts on October 1.
Separately, Congress will probably have to approve an additional $1 billion or $1.5 billion to ensure the fund does not run out in the few weeks that remain in the current fiscal year, Landrieu said.
The House bill does include $1 billion for the current fiscal year but Senate Democrats don't like the measure because it cuts disaster-preparedness funding for state and local governments, and it is unclear whether the two sides will be able to quickly resolve their differences.
The House bill requires the White House to cut other government programs if it needs more money for disaster relief, a provision the administration has said it would ignore.
The Senate bill could clear the Senate Appropriations Committee as soon as Wednesday, teeing it up for passage in the Senate. The Senate commonly takes a week or more to pass legislation, at which point it must be reconciled with the version that passed the House.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)