FEMA requests more disaster aid funding

The Obama administration late Friday told Congress it will need more disaster aid funding for 2012 to cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and the Virginia earthquake.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) now estimates that its disaster relief fund will require $7.1 billion in total for fiscal 2012, congressional sources said.

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The increase is not seen as enough to revive the threat of a government shutdown fight in the coming weeks, however.

While House Republicans and Senate Democrats may still disagree over the exact amount to provide in disaster funding, the GOP has already said it will not demand spending cuts to pay for disaster money so long as the request fell beneath $11.2 billion.

Without the hot-button issue of whether to offset disaster money, the negotiation over disaster aid is far less explosive.

The $7.1 billion request constitutes an increase from the $6.9 billion in total funds it requested last month, $4.2 billion of which was credited to the $11.2 billion cap.

Congress has already appropriated $2.6 billion for the FEMA disaster relief fund (DRF) in 2012 but FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said this week that that amount will run out by the time the temporary spending bill expires on Nov. 18.

The administration was required to re-estimate its disaster needs by an Oct. 15 deadline in the Oct. 1 temporary spending bill.

A battle between House Republicans and Senate Democrats over whether to offset disaster aid held up a temporary spending bill in late September and nearly shut down the government on Oct. 1.

The crisis was averted when the Obama administration said it was able to provide relief through the end of 2011 on Sept 30 without disaster aid. Under the terms of the August budget agreement, up to $11.2 billion in extra disaster aid can be spent in 2012 without the need for offsets. There was no such cushion for 2011.

The fight became damaging to both sides and quiet negotiations are proceeding on disaster aid in which the GOP has said it will not be demanding offsets for 2012 funds.

The $11.2 billion cushion applies to the FEMA fund but also to disaster relief by the Army Corps of Engineers, Small Business Administration, and the departments of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Commerce and Transportation.

The Senate Appropriations Committee in total provided $9.3 billion in disaster funding across these agencies and Senate Democrats are inclined to grant FEMA’s request and increase this to $9.5 billion.

House aides said that the GOP has not yet made any decision on the level of total disaster funding across agencies and that this is subject to negotiations. Staff has already started that process, sources said.

Although a battle over offsets does not loom in the near-term, major hurricanes or other events later in the year could revive the fight.

With FEMA now having already used $4.4 billion of the $11.2 billion disaster relief supplemental spending cap to pay for past disasters, the administration could come back to Congress for supplemental 2012 funding should major disasters strike in the months to come.

Once the cap is exceeded, the GOP would once again likely seek offsets for additional spending, aides said.

Senate Appropriations Committee homeland security subcommittee ranking member Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said the discussion over whether to offset disaster money would continue especially if a suitable offset can be found.

“It is just a fact of life that we are dealing with constrained resources,” he told The Hill.

Coats said earlier in the week that he is prepared to support disaster funding in the range that Senate Democrats have been seeking, but he wanted to examine the details of FEMA’s new estimate when it came out.

Senate Appropriations Committee homeland security subcommittee Chairman Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said she would continue to “hold the line” against offsetting disasters because “it is just wrong” to insist on them.