By Chris Strohm
September 8, 2011Obama administration officials are considering requesting emergency aid from Congress to pay for damage from recent natural disasters, as the government's disaster relief fund is so low that new recovery projects have been halted, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Thursday.
Napolitano said she is discussing the option of requesting emergency disaster aid with officials at the White House and the Office of Management and Budget, but declined to say how much might be needed.
"We are at that point where the [disaster relief fund] will not cover all of what we know is out there," Napolitano told reporters during a wide-ranging press conference.
She said damage from Hurricane Irene alone will cost $1.5 billion. OMB estimates damage from other disasters has reached $5.2 billion. The disaster relief fund has dropped to about $500 million, according to congressional aides.
Another option under discussion is to roll the funding into the fiscal 2012 spending bill for the Homeland Security Department, Napolitano said. However, Congress isn't likely to pass the budget bill in the near future, and instead is expected to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government running. In that case, Napolitano said, she would expect the continuing resolution to contain funding that could be used to pay for past disasters.
Lawmakers are already working on legislation to provide disaster aid. The Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved a DHS budget bill that would provide $6 billion in aid. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the $6 billion could be put into a stand-alone bill in the coming weeks. But a fight is brewing with some Republicans over whether the funding should be offset with spending cuts elsewhere.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in a statement that the House "stands ready to provide any immediate funding" and will "act on a request for such disaster assistance as soon as it is made by President Obama."
He added that Reid's stand-alone bill might seek $7 billion in aid. "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.
Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Mary Landrieu, D-La., is also calling on Obama to submit a funding request to Congress. "If the [disaster relief fund] runs out of money, it would halt recovery projects, including those stemming from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, and Irene," according to a statement from Landrieu's office.
On another front, Napolitano said the government has picked up "lots of chatter" about terrorist threats surrounding the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. But she said nothing has reached the threshold of being a known, credible threat that would require a threat advisory.
Still, the department has directed agencies such as the Federal Air Marshal Service to be on alert. "We will be staffing up. For example, we'll be adding more air marshals to be on duty," Napolitano said. "I think it's fair to say that in addition to asking citizens to be vigilant and so forth, that we have ourselves leaned forward and have made sure that we are doing all we can from the DHS perspective."
By Chris Strohm
September 8, 2011