NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Vermont's independent Sen. Bernie Sanders is joining forces with a Democrat and Republican in seeking greater funding for a heating program that benefits low-income Americans.
Sanders is a perpetual advocate for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, better known as LIHEAP. He is backing legislating with other senators from other New England states to stave off deep cuts and level fund the heating program.
Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine joined Sanders on a conference call with reporters about their efforts to secure more funding.
"This is a program that can really make the difference between life and death," Snowe said Wednesday.
With cold temperatures fast approaching, many Americans will be unable to heat their homes because of low LIHEAP funding, the lawmakers said. Sanders said many low-income Vermonters and Americans are having to choose between heating their homes or purchasing food or prescription drugs.
"What we're looking at is soaring oil and propane prices at the same time we're in the midst of a recession," he said.
The Obama administration sought just $2.5 billion for the program this year, a 45 percent cut from the $4.7 billion available last year. The House is considering a modest boost to $3.4 billion for heating assistance. The Senate, meanwhile, is considering $3.6 million.
Sanders, Snowe and Reed are seeking level-funding at $4.7 billion. "We're not proposing anything drastic here in the legislation that we've come together to support," Reed said.
The number of people seeking heating assistance continues to exceed the number of people that can receive assistance, Reed said. "It does not make sense to cut LIHEAP when people are struggling," he said.
Sanders said his office has "been receiving a number of emails and phone calls from people who are terribly frightened.
"This is America and we're going to do everything we can to make sure that no American goes cold this winter," he said.
Bennington resident Louise McClay, 49, said she is one of the people who contacted Sanders' office. She and her husband are both disabled and trying to keep themselves and their 15-year-old daughter warm.
"What it means is that I don't know where I'm going to have our heating for the winter," she said in a telephone interview. "We only got 100 gallons to heat our mobile home for the winter."
It will take 400 to 500 gallons to heat their home for the winter, according to McClay. The heat is already set to 62 degrees and cannot be lowered because of health issues, she said.
"Where are we supposed to get money that's not there?" she said. "We don't have any money extra. We're struggling already."
A 47-year-old woman from Arlington also wrote to Sanders. "We will have to make the fuel go as far as we can and then try to survive the rest of winter. I am scared that we may freeze to death this winter, or lose our house to keep warm. I'm very scared for my children. Vermont needs help," she wrote.
Snowe said the three lawmakers will continue to pressure colleagues to increase funding. "Together we're fighting tooth and nail," she said.