Vulnerable House Republicans break with leaders on disaster aid offset pledge

Vulnerable House Republicans in New York and New Jersey are pushing back against a pledge by party leaders to counter disaster aid with spending cuts.

The early vow by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) put Republicans from states affected by Hurricane Irene and other recent disasters in a tight spot, caught between adhering to the party’s dictums on deficit reduction and providing for constituents at a time of heightened need.

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Rep. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.), who won by fewer than 6,000 votes in 2010, issued a statement saying that a national emergency is the wrong time to wage a budget debate.

“While I respect Majority Leader Cantor and share his commitment to spending discipline, my focus right now is making sure hard-hit areas in New Jersey receive the necessary federal resources they need in order to recover,” the freshman lawmaker said.

And on Wednesday, Cantor vowed there would be “no holdup” in approving federal disaster aid for localities ravaged by an earthquake and torrential storms.

“Unequivocally, I am for making sure people get their money and not have to wait,” he told reporters in a Capitol briefing. “I have never, never said that I am holding anything hostage or would be for playing politics with this.”

The issue hits close to home for Cantor, whose district lies in a state that requested — and received — federal assistance for Irene. 

In New York, Rep. Michael Grimm (R), a freshman who won his seat last year by less than three percentage points, said aid should be given without regard to offsets. Grimm represents flood-ridden Staten Island and told The New York Times that you can’t put a number on keeping citizens safe.

New York Republican Reps. Richard Hanna, Nan Hayworth, Ann Marie Buerkle and Chris Gibson have also distanced themselves from Cantor’s remarks. And Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) told The Hill that the cleanup from Hurricane Irene shouldn’t be held hostage to Washington politics.

Besides running in Democrat-leaning New York and New Jersey, these lawmakers could also be running in altered districts as New York is losing two congressional seats and New Jersey is losing one in the redistricting process.

“There’s still some Republican moderates who don’t have the constraints Cantor does,” said David Wasserman, House editor of The Cook Political Report. “Not only as a leader in the GOP conference, but the de facto leader of the conservative strain of Republicans in the House.”

Wasserman said one likely strategy would be for Republicans to point to spending cuts that have already been agreed to — such as those promised as part of the debt-reduction deal President Obama struck with GOP leaders — as offsets for the aid needed for Irene and other disasters.

Russell Berman contributed.