House panel moves to cut disaster aid

House Republicans moved their first two 2012 appropriations bills through committee Tuesday amid fights with committee Democrats over deep cuts to disaster aid that come as Missouri grapples with a devastating tornado.

Appropriators reported the Homeland Security and military construction spending bills to the floor after beating back Democratic amendments to restore funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and grants to fund firefighter training and assistance programs. 

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Lawmakers also added $1 billion in funding to assist communities up and down the Mississippi River battered by tornadoes and floods, but the funding was offset with cuts to other programs under the amendment, offered by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee. 

Aderholt’s amendment offset costs by cutting funding for Department of Energy Alternative Technology Vehicle loans.

The two bills are expected to be approved by the full House but have little chance of becoming law without changes backed by the Democratic Senate. 

For the time being, they act as markers for Republicans as they negotiate a deficit-cutting deal in closed-door talks with Vice President Joe Biden. Those talks continued in the Capitol on Tuesday evening.

The Homeland Security appropriations bill, which included cuts to disaster aid and firefighter funding, was approved on a party-line vote. The measure would cut $1.07 billion from fiscal 2011 levels, and about $3 billion from President Obama’s request for next year.

The military construction bill, which cuts $615 million from this year’s spending, passed with bipartisan support after Democrats and centrist Republicans joined forces to strip language that would have allowed federal contracts to pay less than prevailing wages.

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) offered amendments to the Homeland Security bill to reverse cuts to disaster aid and firefighter assistance grants, but both failed on largely party-line votes.

The first amendment would have restored $460 million for the firefighter grants, bringing funding up to last year’s levels and reversing a 65 percent cut.

“Rep. Price believes it’s critical to restore funding to the first responder community because these Homeland Security professionals are first on the scene in the event of attacks, natural disasters and other emergencies,” an aide said.

The second amendment would have restored cuts to state and local FEMA programs as well as the firefighter program.

With the cuts, FEMA state and local programs would be reduced by 55 percent compared to levels for fiscal 2011, and by 70 percent compared to fiscal 2010. 

Democrats argue the cuts would hurt local communities trying to stop terrorist attacks in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s killing, which has al Qaeda vowing revenge. 

All the Republicans on the committee except Reps. Steven LaTourette (Ohio) and Denny Rehberg (Mont.) voted against the first amendment. LaTourette alone voted for the second. Rehberg is running for Senate in Montana, and also voted against the House GOP budget, citing its cuts to Medicare.

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In arguing for the cuts, Aderholt pointed out the bill actually increases funding for FEMA disaster relief by $850 million once a disaster strikes compared to Obama’s budget request. 

Republicans also said the grants were appropriate to cut since FEMA has been slow to pay out the money and has not done a good job in prioritizing funds.

Democrats have slammed the GOP for insisting that any additional disaster relief be offset with other spending cuts. They argued the cuts imposed by Aderholt to offset the $1 billion in additional funding for flood and tornado relief could hurt nine pending applications for Energy Department loans, including from Chrysler, which on Tuesday paid back its government loans. 

Democrats on the committee also said the emergency funding is likely too little. 

The markup featured a Tea Party-inspired amendment from Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) that he said would empower state legislators and governors to sue the federal government to prevent it from encroaching on state and local rights under the 10th Amendment to conduct law enforcement. It was voted down by voice vote after Aderholt declared it not germane to the bill.

On the military construction bill, language ending Davis-Bacon requirements that contractors pay prevailing local wages was stripped out by an amendment offered by LaTourette. It passed by a vote of 24-23, with Republicans Rehberg and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (Mo.) in support.

The committee also agreed to an amendment by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to remove language encouraging collective bargaining agreements on federal military construction contracts.