WASHINGTON (AP) _ Cash-strapped families who depend on home heating assistance can expect more federal dollars this winter.
The government's Low Income Home Energy Assistance program would get roughly $409 million more in a year-end budget bill Congress is expected to approve Wednesday. Fuel aid advocates praised the increase, but warned it won't be enough to keep pace with record home heating oil prices, particularly in the Northeast.
``It's a step in the right direction,'' said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, which represents state-run low income energy assistance programs. ``But it's going to be a very tough winter even with this.''
The Senate late Tuesday approved about $2.6 billion for the government's Low Income Home Energy Assistance program, which provides heating and cooling subsidies for the poor. Similar LIHEAP money is part of a massive $555 billion omnibus appropriations package the House was expected to pass Wednesday.
President Bush had proposed cutting the fuel aid program by $379 million.
Millions of poor and elderly people on fixed incomes rely on heating assistance to help pay their heating bills.
Lawmakers from cold-weather states pressed for extra money as Congress neared adjournment. They say aid dollars have been outpaced by high fuel prices.
``These funds will help families most in need in Massachusetts, so they won't have to choose between heating their home, putting food on their table, seeking health care for their children, or obtaining other necessities this winter,'' said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. ``No family should have to face such impossible choices.''
Lawmakers are expected to push for additional money early next year. Wolfe said some states could begin running out of fuel assistance funds in late January.
``This is certainly an initial step, but in context of the historic prices of heating oil, we must provide additional resources to this vital program,'' Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said.
The Energy Department estimates heating oil costs will jump about 26 percent this winter. That's an average increase of $375 for customers. Propane costs will rise about 20 percent. Natural gas customers can expect to pay about 10 percent more.
The Northeast, which is more reliant on oil heat than other regions, has struggled with oil prices of more than $3 per gallon in some areas.
Some cold-weather states are already feeling the pinch of higher fuel costs as wintry weather hits.
In Massachusetts, where about 40 percent of homes use oil heat, officials were so worried about rising prices they recently provided an additional $15 million in state funds for fuel assistance. Massachusetts will get about $82 million from LIHEAP, enough to help 95,000 families, Kennedy said.
Maine, one of the country's coldest states, is bracing for a potential crisis. Officials worry that poor, elderly and working families will be more vulnerable as winter wears on and they use up their fuel aid for the season.
Maine homes relying on oil use about 860 gallons a year, on average. State officials have predicted it will cost an average household about $2,750 for heating oil this winter.
That means Maine's average fuel aid benefit of $579 will only last most families about a month. Five or six years ago, the average benefit would cover about half of the heating season, officials said.