Senate Dems' funding move dares GOP to insist on FEMA offsets

Senate Democrats on Tuesday moved forward with legislation providing $6 billion in new funding for relief from Hurricane Irene and other disasters, all but daring Republicans to insist the money be offset with other spending cuts. 

The Senate Appropriations Homeland Security subcommittee approved the funding, which would go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster relief fund. The bill still must be approved by the full Senate Appropriations Committee.

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The move by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) signaled Democrats believe Republicans have a weak political hand when it comes to demanding that disaster assistance be offset. 

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) last week said lawmakers should offset disaster funds, given the nation’s budgetary crisis. He found support from others in his conference, including Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio), but some GOP appropriators grumbled, while Republican governors such as New Jersey’s Chris Christie said no offsets should be required. 

“I am mindful of Majority Leader Cantor’s comments, but I have also heard from Republican leaders and Republican governors that they’re not in the mood or of the mind to fight over how to help disaster victims,” Landrieu, noting the GOP divide, said Tuesday. 

“We’ll figure out how to pay for it, but we need to get help to them now,” she added. 

The Senate funding for FEMA, which Landrieu said was a down payment, compares to $3.64 billion included in a House-approved bill. Of that amount, only $1 billion was offset by cuts to a green energy program.

Landrieu’s move was backed up by heated rhetoric from her fellow committee Democrats.

“There are some on the other side of the Capitol who want to play politics with these issues,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said. “I say we are not going to rob Peter to pay Paul. It seems like some of these people want to rob Peter and Paul.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), whose state suffered massive damage from flooding caused by Hurricane Irene, pounded the table and railed against billions spent in Iraq and Afghanistan while disaster aid at home was questioned.

“Let’s start worrying about Americans in America!” he yelled. 

A provision in the bill approved in August to raise the nation’s debt ceiling allows that cap to be raised to accommodate disaster spending. For 2012, $11.3 billion in extra funds can be spent without being offset. 

Landrieu said $4.2 billion for the FEMA fund comes from raising the cap, while $1.8 billion is in the base homeland security appropriations bill.

She said that this fiscal 2012 funding must be accompanied by emergency supplemental funds to keep FEMA going until the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.

FEMA’s disaster fund is running close to empty after a series of tornadoes ripped through the South and Midwest. Then came the devastating blow from Irene, which caused damage up and down the Atlantic coast. 

The FEMA fund has only $600 million left in it this year. Landrieu wants $1 billion to $1.5 billion in extra FEMA funding now so that projects that were stopped in order to deal with Irene can be restarted. Landrieu said she would not wait for a formal FEMA request before trying to move an emergency supplemental to provide the additional aid.

Landrieu said she has not spoken yet to Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), the House appropriator in charge of FEMA funds. His office did not provide a comment Tuesday on the Senate bill. 

GOP aides said Republican lawmakers are awaiting a formal request from the administration for emergency FEMA funding, something that still has not been made. 

The White House has only said informally that pre-Irene disasters require $5.2 billion, while Irene damages will cost at least an additional $1.5 billion.

Senate Republican appropriators did not object to the FEMA disaster funds during the subcommittee markup, though several blasted an increase in airline user fees in the bill.

In an emailed statement, Cantor’s office emphasized its support for disaster spending and said that once President Obama requests disaster funds, House Republicans will look to appropriate them in a responsible way. 

“There are people facing really difficult situations as they work to recover from Hurricane Irene and other natural disasters, and our top focus is getting them the money they need should the president request it, as is his duty,” Cantor spokeswoman Laena Fallon wrote in an email.

“It’s not an issue for one party or the other, it’s the responsibility of Congress to come together to support disaster assistance if and when the president asks for it, and it’s also our responsibility to do so in a way that best serves all taxpayers and families.”