WASHINGTON - Matilda Winslow counts on home-heating assistance to survive New England's harsh winters. The 75-year-old widow gets by on an $860 monthly Social Security check, which cannot keep up with heating-oil costs that top $3 a gallon.

So she turns down the heat, pulls on sweaters, piles on blankets and wears warm socks to bed. When temperatures really plummet, she leaves her home in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood and stays at her daughter's house.

"It's miserable," Winslow said. "How do they expect me to live and heat my home?"

Like Winslow, millions of poor and elderly people on fixed incomes rely on assistance to help pay their heating bills. But with heating-oil prices surging to records and wintry storms already hitting many states, Congress and President Bush cannot agree on how much money to give the government's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides heating and cooling subsidies for the poor.

Bush recently vetoed a sweeping Democratic health and education spending bill that included roughly $2.4 billion in heating aid for the poor this winter. The amount was $480 million more than he had requested and would have boosted the energy-assistance program about $250 million above last winter's level.

Lawmakers from cold-weather states are still pressing for the extra money before Congress adjourns this year. They say funding has been outpaced by rising fuel prices.

"It's really kind of scary," said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, which represents state-run low-income-energy-assistance programs. "We're going to be looking at an awful lot of hardship."

The fuel aid is caught up in the broader fight between Congress and the White House over where to draw the line on federal spending.

The fight pits cold-state lawmakers who say the program is underfunded against lawmakers from warm-weather states, who complain the subsidies favor cold-weather regions.

Until the standoff is resolved, state agencies and others on the local level who distribute federal fuel aid cannot be sure of how much money they will have to work with this winter.

The Energy Department estimates that heating-oil costs will rise about 26 percent this winter. That is an average increase of $375 for users. Propane costs will rise about 20 percent. Natural gas customers can expect to pay about 10 percent more.

Wolfe predicts an even greater increase in the cost of heating oil than the government does. He expects households to pay an average of $2,157 this winter, a $693 increase from last winter.

The Northeast, which is more reliant on oil heat than other regions, has been rocked by record-breaking oil prices and is feeling the pinch.

Officials in Maine, one of the country's coldest states, are concerned that poor, elderly and working families will be more vulnerable as winter wears on and they use up their fuel aid for the season. At current prices, Maine's average fuel-aid benefit of $579 will last most families only about a month.

"We've never been so worried before," said Dale McCormick, director of MaineHousing, a state agency that administers the federal assistance.

For information on the low-income energy assitance program, go to

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