WASHINGTON – The Senate decided Wednesday the money wasn’t there for a substantial spending boost for the federal home heating program, deflecting arguments that soaring energy prices could force the poor to choose between heat and food this winter.

Senators voted 54-43 in favor of a proposal to boost the fiscal 2006 budget for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program from $2.2 billion to $5.1 billion. That was six votes short of the 60-vote majority needed to approve new spending not coupled with equivalent spending cuts.

Northern senators who pushed for increased spending for the program, led by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, argued that the surge in fuel costs would be crippling to low-income families.

People could have to “choose between keeping the heat on, putting food on the table or buying much needed prescription drugs,” Collins said. “No family should need to make such terrible choices.”

Reed cited estimates that those who heat their homes with fuel oil will need $1,600 this winter, up $380, while the cost of using natural gas for heating could rise $500 to $1,400.

The Senate also defeated, 53-46, an alternative put forward by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., that would have increased spending on the program by about $1.3 billion while paying for the increase with an across-the-board cut of almost 1 percent in programs included in a $146 billion spending bill covering health, education and labor programs.

Gregg’s amendment needed only a majority of 51 votes because it did not increase spending. Opponents argued that even a 1 percent cut could be harmful to programs already squeezed by tight budgets.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said education grants for low-income children would be cut by $118 million, affecting 37,000 kids, and Head Start would lose $63 million.

It was the third time this month that Reed unsuccessfully offered a LIHEAP amendment to a spending bill. He said he would keep trying. With President Bush supportive of the energy assistance program, it was still possible that it could get more money as part of an emergency hurricane relief spending bill that Congress may consider before the end of the year.

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