By Mike Lillis - 08/31/11 08:41 PM EDT
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Wednesday amplified vows that Congress will provide emergency aid to victims of Hurricane Irene, but he declined to say whether Republicans will insist the funding be offset with cuts elsewhere.
“I believe there’s an appropriate federal role, and the monies will be there,” Cantor told reporters in his district, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“As I’ve said continuously, we will find the monies for disaster relief,” he tweeted.
Cantor churned headlines this week after telling Fox News that congressional lawmakers “are going to have to make sure” that federal aid in response to the storm is accompanied by “savings elsewhere” in the budget.
Asked by Fox on Monday if “any federal money that comes out for Hurricane Irene needs to be met dollar for dollar with spending cuts,” Cantor responded, “Well, yeah.”
“Just like any family would operate when it’s struck with disaster, it finds the money to take care of a sick loved one or what have you, and then goes without trying to buy a new car or [putting] an addition onto the house,” Cantor told Fox.
Cantor’s office softened that position Tuesday, saying Congress should “find offsets whenever possible,” because “that is the responsible thing to do.”
Still, the Fox remarks caught the attention of the White House, which questioned why Cantor didn’t push harder for offsets under the Bush administration, when Republicans ran up trillions of dollars in debt on unfunded programs.
In 2004, Cantor helped secure nearly $20 million in federal help for his district in the wake of Tropical Storm Gaston. At the time, there was no call for offsetting the funds.
Cantor on Wednesday said the controversy surrounding his Fox remarks has been blown out of proportion.
“The attempt to try and portray this as some kind of political issue — it’s not,” Cantor told the Times-Dispatch. “We have a budget issue for sure, we all know that.”
The arrival of Irene — coming just days after a 5.8-magnitude earthquake hit Cantor’s district — has left the Virginia Republican in a tough spot. On one hand, he’s emerged as a national figure and Tea Party favorite, which puts pressure on him to rein in deficit spending at every turn. On the other hand, he’s also under pressure to bring home the bacon for a district hit with two major natural disasters in the course of a week.
Cantor on Wednesday suggested no tension between those dual roles, noting that Republicans have already passed additional funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of the GOP’s Homeland Security appropriations bill — funds that were offset by cuts elsewhere.
“The House has approved funding,” he tweeted; “the Senate needs to act.”
Still, Senate Democrats are opposed to some of the cuts in the GOP bill. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who heads the Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, has scheduled a markup next week of the Democrats’ version of the FEMA funding bill.
But a House Democratic leadership aide said Wednesday that it’s “highly unlikely” the parties could agree on reconciling the two bills in time to help Irene victims.
“Are House Republicans willing to shut down the federal government in order to satisfy their demands for offsets on disaster relief for the victims of Hurricane Irene?” the Democratic aide asked.
Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) warned Wednesday that a delay in aid could have dramatic effects on victims of the storm. In a letter to Cantor and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the New Orleans lawmaker called on Republican leaders to abandon thoughts of demanding offsets.
“If this was the policy after Hurricane Katrina,” Richmond wrote, “survivors would have been waiting for months or even years for assistance.”
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) sounded a similar note Tuesday, saying deficit-reduction concerns should take a back seat to getting aid to victims.
“My concern is that we help people in need,” McDonnell said during his monthly radio address. “For the FEMA money that’s going to flow, it’s up to them on how they get it. I don’t think it’s the time to get into that debate.”
Even before the storm hit, McDonnell had appealed to FEMA for emergency aid to 10 Virginia districts, including Cantor’s. The agency granted all of those requests this week.
McDonnell spokesman Jeff Caldwell said Wednesday that officials are still in the early stages of assessing the damage left by Irene. If there’s enough damage “of the eligible kind,” Caldwell added, “then we’ll more than likely be applying for more [help].”
Caldwell and federal officials have indicated that the final assessment could take a week or two.