WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - It shelters millions from weather's extremes but costs billions. Lawmakers in D.C. are in the midst of debating how to fund a program that pays for heating and cooling bills, when those in the home can't.
Leaves still litter Todd Alexander's lawn in Northwestern Vermont - as unseasonably warm weather lingers. But, he knows winter is coming.
As he has before, Alexander will count on about $600 in heating assistance this winter, cash he said is critical to keeping the heat on in his drafty trailer. "It's going to make a big difference," he said, "without it - [I'm on] social security, disabled - I couldn't swing it."
President Donald Trump proposed cutting the multi-billion-dollar program as part of his budget plan.
Government estimates suggest six million people rely on it to heat, cool, or weatherize their homes. In Vermont, more than 21,000 households are expected to receive assistance at a cost to the federal government of more than $17-million.
Rep. Peter Welch wrote a letter with more than 100 of his colleagues in the House. The letter asks that the administration send cash for the program to states now, even as the budget debate unfolds.
"It's going to be cold and people are going to need home heating fuel," Welch said.
Welch said he's confident lawmakers will at least refund the program at last year's level: roughly $3.4 billion. "That's less than we need," he said, "but it's a lot more than zero."
Tom Schatz runs Citizens Against Government Waste. He argues for phasing out LIHEAP but said it's unrealistic to expect it to be cut completely.
"Like many other originally well-intended programs, this is one that has been subject to waste, fraud, and abuse," he said.
Schatz points to a government audit that showed instances of prisoners, dead people, and even wealthy individuals receiving the benefit.
He said the program should be phased out - with the responsibility and cost for helping low-income residents shifted to states. That he said would cut down on fraud.
"Nobody wants people to freeze or lose their heating all-together," he said, "the states won't let that happen."
That's a big bill for states to pick-up. Government reports indicate the federally-run program only has the cash to serve one of every five households that qualify.
Alexander said a related program is set to help make his home more air-tight - which could cut his heating costs by 25 percent. In D.C,. a budget agreement could be hammered out by the end of the month.