The chances of Congress approving the extra $44 million in home heating assistance state officials are counting on are slim, but not impossible, U.S. Rep. John B. Larson warned Monday.

The 1st District Democrat warned that Senate opposition to the additional funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program mirrors a trend that has bogged down more than 400 bills since February of last year.

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John Larson

Larson, whose post as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus makes him the fourth-highest ranking Democrat in the chamber, said Senate Republicans, whose numbers enable them to filibuster anything they oppose, continue to block various efforts to expand relief for states.

“My advice for (state) legislators is to call the Senate,” Larson said following a late-morning press conference to rally support for fair elections legislation pending on Capitol Hill. “They decided in February 2009 that they’re going to start the campaign now and block everything President Obama wants. … This has become a joke.”

One of those things involves $5.3 billion for the energy assistance program, commonly known as LIHEAP, which helped low-income families across the nation, including a record-setting 82,956 Connecticut households, pay their heating and other energy bills last winter.

The Obama administration proposed $3.3 billion in base funding, but also recommended an additional $2 billion be made available if certain “trigger” standards – such as adverse economic conditions or soaring demand – are reached.

A House Appropriations subcommittee recommended $5.1 billion in funding, which matched last year’s level, with no trigger conditions.

But the Senate Appropriations panel recommended the $3.3 billion in base funding, but failed to adopt any mechanism for releasing additional funding.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration estimated this would cost Connecticut $44.2 million, and urged three state legislative committees that oversee the LIHEAP program here to curtail benefits and tighten eligibility standards.

Last winter, households with earnings less than 60 percent of the state median income — $60,986 for a family of four – were eligible. The new plan set the limit at 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $44,100 for that same family of four.The administration said these cuts could be reversed if additional federal funding becomes available.

Members of the General Assembly’s Appropriations, Human Services and Energy and Technology committees balked at making changes, noting that a projected 18,800 families would lose benefits and many others would see their assistance reduced.

“Democrats in the state legislature were irresponsible in creating a $44 million hole for LIHEAP in the budget two weeks ago, and the state needs Connecticut’s congressional delegation to cover this irresponsibility,” Rell said Monday.

Larson conceded Congress isn’t likely to adopt anything before November elections, and even an omnibus trailer session planned for after Election Day offers no guarantees that LIHEAP funding equal to last year’s level.

With political analysts forecasting Republicans will pick up seats in both congressional chambers during the mid-term elections, Larson said there is some hope Congress will spare LIHEAP from any cuts after the elections, but states shouldn’t count on it.

The need “is true for Connecticut and we know it is equally true around the country,” Larson said, adding he’s hopeful voters in Republican states will press their senators to act.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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