By Erik Wasson - 08/29/11 10:11 PM EDT
The extensive inland flooding from Hurricane Irene will intensify a multipronged fight over how Congress should provide aid to communities hit by natural disasters.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is still assessing the cost of the storm, but congressional aides expect the cost of the damage to top the $792 million FEMA has in its disaster account through the end of September, increasing the need for fast action.
Lawmakers already were battling over how much money FEMA’s disaster relief fund should get in a new Homeland Security spending bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
House GOP leaders previously have said disaster aid should be offset, but congressional aides on Monday said some Republicans disagree and note that emergency disaster funding has not been offset in the past.
“It’s too early to determine what the overall costs will be and how they will be paid for,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.) said in an emailed statement. King represents one of the states hit hardest by Irene.
Before the storm hit, appropriations aides said a supplemental bill in September would be needed if Irene was more than a minor event. On Monday, the likelihood of a special spending measure was rising almost as fast as rivers in New York, Vermont and other states.
As Irene’s costs stack up, they could erase the spending cuts the GOP has been able to wring from the budget during spending battles earlier this year. This is likely to put pressure on GOP leaders to demand that disaster aid be offset with other spending cuts.
Yet Republicans will also face pressure from members representing areas hit by Irene who need aid fast. Democrats say disaster funding should not be offset.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) signaled Monday he wants any spending on Irene to be offset by spending cuts elsewhere.
“Yes we are going to find the money. We are just going to have to make sure there are savings elsewhere to continue to do so,” Cantor said on Fox News.
“We will find the money if there is a need for additional monies,” he added. “But … those monies are not unlimited, and what we’ve always said is we offset [with] that which has already been funded.”
Not all GOP members are insisting on offsets for emergencies, one GOP aide said. A second aide said given the number of states hit by Irene, the supplemental bill could be very large, making offsetting cuts difficult and controversial.
House Republicans want to put $3.65 billion to FEMA’s annual disaster fund for fiscal 2012, with $1 billion meant to help FEMA cover costs for fiscal 2011.
Over the weekend, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said the GOP legislation should be approved immediately so that FEMA can continue to clean up past disasters, such as the tornados that ripped through Missouri earlier this year, while also tackling Irene’s aftermath.
Senate Democrats in reaction on Monday scheduled a markup of their rival bill for Sept. 6 and emphasized they are moving quickly to provide relief. They are expected to propose nearly double the amount of disaster funding for the full year and do not want to be rushed into agreeing to a bill that reduces other homeland security programs.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Mary Landrieu (D-La.) especially objects to cuts the House made to FEMA grants to the states.
“The excessive cuts in the House bill would be pulling the legs out from under state and local governments at the time when they need a helping hand the most,” she said in a statement Monday. “The Senate version of the Homeland Security Appropriations bill — which we will mark up in my Subcommittee on Tuesday — will present a bipartisan, fiscally-disciplined approach to ensuring our national security and preparedness. I look forward to working together with my colleagues — Republican and Democrat — to meet this challenge.”
Senate appropriators are demanding an assessment by FEMA before next Tuesday of whether its $792 million fund will run dry before Oct. 1.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate on Monday said his agency needs to get state-level reports before it can tally the cost of Irene, which caused destruction from North Carolina to Maine.
Irene’s flooding will also intensify a squabble over the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) which provides flood coverage for some 5.6 million Americans and runs out of money Sept. 30.
The House has passed H.R. 1309, the Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2011, but a Senate Banking discussion draft produced by Democrats and set for markup in September would forgive $18 billion in NFIP debt, something opposed by the GOP.
The insurance industry is urging quick passage of the House bill and is nervous given the rancor of the debt-ceiling fight that the program will be allowed to lapse.
Benjamin McKay of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America said if that happens, millions of policies will be voided. Congress can extend the program retroactively, but in the meantime, insurers would be on the hook entirely for claims.
He said the debt issue would likely weigh down the Senate bill and make moving the House bill easier.
— Pete Kasperowicz contributed to this story.