Both parties promise to pass disaster relief funding without delay

Despite a controversy triggered by a statement last month from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), or perhaps because of it, both the House and the Senate appear ready to make billions of dollars of relief available to areas stricken by natural disasters.

Cantor suggested in late August, after Hurricane Irene had wreaked havoc upon the East Coast, that Republicans would seek to offset new funding for disaster relief with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.

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The comment drew fire from Democrats, as well as Republican governors in states affected by Irene. Cantor dodged further comment on the issue for several days, but on Wednesday the House’s No. 2 Republican declared that there would be no “holdup” of disaster relief funds for the people who need them.

“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.”

Cantor noted that a mechanism for increasing emergency aid was included in the debt deal that Congress enacted in August, and said that his earlier comments about offsetting spending cuts were made in the context of the government’s traditional manner of allocating disaster relief, which he criticized as “ad hoc.” 

“There have been games played with disaster funding,” Cantor said.

But Cantor’s clarification did not prevent Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) later Wednesday from referring to Cantor’s post-Irene remarks, when announcing his intent to soon move a $6 billion relief bill to pay for damages caused by Hurricane Irene and other disasters.

Noting that Cantor had said the cost of disaster relief should be offset by cuts to other parts of the federal budget, Reid predicted that many Republicans would not support delaying a disaster-relief bill because of a fight over spending cuts.

“We need to get this relief funding to the American people as quickly as we can and we’re going to do that,” Reid told reporters. “I’m going to bring a free-standing bill and we’re going to have a chance to vote on it.”

Reid pointed out that the cost of the U.S. military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been paid for by offsetting spending cuts or with tax increases.

“I hope my Republican colleagues can put politics aside and work with us to get relief to the American people who need it now,” Reid said.

The Democratic leader said, in addition to the damage caused by Irene, there are other emergencies that must be addressed. He pointed out that Tropical Storm Lee has dropped up to 20 inches of rain in some parts of the country and that wildfires have destroyed nearly 1,500 homes in Texas.

Reid said he would take a $6 billion disaster-relief fund out of the Homeland Security appropriations bill and move it on its own. He is expected to add about $1 billion to that total to cover a shortfall in disaster funding for fiscal year 2011. The $6 billion from the appropriations bill would be reserved for next year, a Democratic aide said. 

“I’ll take that out and have a free-standing bill,” the majority leader said.

“On the Mississippi River we have 3 million acres of farmland — not 3,000, not 300,000 — 3 million acres that are covered with water,” Reid said.

Cantor, whose Richmond district was hit particularly hard by both the Aug. 23 earthquake and Irene, was quick to respond to Reid’s proposal.

“The House stands ready to provide any immediate funding needed by those coping with the recent earthquake in Virginia, Hurricane Irene, the tornados in Joplin, the fires and droughts in Texas and other disasters,” Cantor said in a news release. 

He said the House would act on a request for disaster assistance as soon as President Obama makes it. He also responded directly to Reid’s proposal.

“Though details remain vague, it is being reported that Majority Leader Reid plans to move an unprecedented standalone measure that includes up to $7 billion in FEMA disaster funds for next year in the coming weeks,” Cantor said in the release.

“I would ask Leader Reid to provide members of the House with the details of his request and a breakdown of what immediate funding is needed for each of the specific disaster areas listed above, so that the House can appropriately act on any legislation passed by the Senate,” Cantor said.

The Virginia congressman has not said how much additional disaster funding he could support, noting that the president has not yet specified a request.

In a Tuesday letter to appropriators, Obama’s budget director, Jacob Lew, said the administration would formally request an additional $4.8 billion in disaster funding. That’s in addition to the $1.8 billion the government requested in February, bringing the total to $6.6 billion. Cantor said he had not seen Lew’s letter.