In tornado's wake, Capitol Hill lawmakers grapple with questions about aid

Prayers on Capitol Hill for the victims of a massive tornado in Oklahoma quickly turned to questions on Tuesday about whether Congress would need to appropriate funds for disaster relief, and whether they should be offset with other spending cuts.

Leaders across Washington pledged to give Oklahoma any help it would need after a massive tornado killed at least 24 people and destroyed a hospital, two schools and scores of homes in the town of Moore, Okla. 

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The White House and congressional leaders said the Federal Emergency Management Agency had enough funds “right now” to handle the initial response efforts, but they said it would take weeks to get a full estimate of the cost. 

“As a nation, our full focus right now is on the urgent work of rescue, and the hard work of recovery and rebuilding that lies ahead,” President Obama said at the White House. 

The president spoke to Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) and other local officials by phone, and late Monday night he signed a disaster declaration to expedite federal funding to the affected areas. 

Many conservatives have insisted on offsetting new disaster relief with spending cuts after recent calamities. The office of Oklahoma’s junior senator, Tom Coburn (R), said he would keep with his practice of opposing emergency appropriations without offsets. Amid questions from reporters, an aide to Coburn called it “crass” to play politics with disaster relief aid as rescue workers are still trying to recover people from the wreckage in his home state. 

The issue of disaster relief has roiled House Republicans in recent years. More than two-thirds of the conference voted against a $51 billion relief bill for the victims of Hurricane Sandy in January. The legislation passed with Democratic support, and the vote occurred after Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) faced withering criticism from a fellow Republican, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, after an earlier vote was postponed. 

Speaking at the Capitol on Tuesday morning, Boehner choked up as he offered prayers for the victims of the tornado and noted that the storm hit the hometown of Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). Yet the Speaker faced immediate questions about whether Republicans would insist on spending cuts if new federal aid became necessary. 

“We’ll work with the administration on making sure that they have the resources they need to help the people of Oklahoma,” Boehner said. The Speaker repeated his answer when pressed on the issue, and he deflected a reporter’s questions that were directed at Republican members of the Oklahoma delegation who also attended the press conference. 

The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), told reporters on Tuesday that FEMA had $11.6 billion remaining in its disaster relief fund for the current fiscal year. 

“We’ve got sufficient money in the relief fund to cover the matter, I think,” Rogers said. 

He said he would not push for offsets for any new aid. 

“With disasters and people in critical condition, I can’t insist on offsets,” Rogers said. “We’ve got to help these people.” 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, “in the days and weeks ahead, we’re going do everything in our power to make sure that the victims of this tragedy have the resources they need.” The Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), deflected questions about new aid or offsets until after a damage assessment is complete. 

Republican aides downplayed the possibility of a new fight over disaster aid, while Democrats were quick to warn against one. 

“This is a time for neighbor helping neighbor. This is not the time for a ‘budgeteering’ battle,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “This is a time to respond with compassion and competence.” 

The tornado could also raise questions about the way localities can use FEMA funding. In February, the ravaged city of Moore complained about changing federal regulations that prevented it from dispersing money for tornado shelters. 

The city said that its proposal to give rebates to homeowners to build natural-disaster-safe rooms was suffering delays from federal and state regulators. 

Redesigned rules were preventing the approval of the county’s hazard mitigation plan, holding up the rebate program. 

“There were changes to the federal requirements for this plan that occurred while our contractor was writing the document; he has had to rewrite it,” the city said in a statement, pointing to changes at FEMA. 

“We’ve found that the FEMA requirements and their interpretations seem to be a constantly moving target, more so with the new wrinkles.” 

— Julian Hattem, Erik Wasson, Daniel Strauss and Alexander Bolton contributed.

— Updated at 8:33 p.m.