Fight brewing over replenishing FEMA’s emergency funds after Hurricane Irene

Dennis Brack/Newscom
With estimated damage from Hurricane Irene topping $7 billion, the White House and some in Congress are at odds over where to find money to replenish the disaster relief fund of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has dipped below the $1 billion level considered advisable.

On Sunday, FEMA stirred some controversy when it announced that to meet the current crisis it was temporarily suspending payments for rebuilding in areas hit by earlier disasters, such as this spring's tornadoes in Missouri and other states. Then on Monday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told a Fox News audience that any new federal disaster monies would require offsetting cuts in other spending, igniting a round of budgetary who-goes-first.

"The House passed, and leader Cantor supported, the Homeland Security appropriations bill, which includes additional money to replenish the FEMA disaster fund," a Cantor spokeswoman said Tuesday. "That funding was offset. The Senate has thus far failed to act on that legislation. There has been no additional request made for emergency dollars."

Cantor's aide added the House will "respond appropriately" if President Obama requests emergency funding, but "in the interim, we can't respond to an emergency request that doesn't yet exist."

A White House spokeswoman was noncommittal about a new funding request. "We are monitoring the situation very closely and will be working with state and local governments to assess the damage in the days and weeks ahead," she said. "As the president said . . . we will ensure that families and communities affected by this disaster have the resources necessary to recover from the worst damage. It's too early to tell what the damage assessment will be and what next steps may need to be taken."

The notion of requiring offsets for new hurricane relief drew skepticism from White House chief spokesman Jay Carney. "This president is very committed to fiscal discipline, and . . . obviously we applaud those who are committed also," he told reporters Tuesday. "I guess I can't help but say that I wish that commitment to looking for offsets had been held by the House majority leader and others, say, during the previous administration when they ran up unprecedented bills and not paid -- and never paid for them."

Firm opposition to Cantor's demand came from Senate assistant majority leader Dick Durbin, D-Ill. If the president "believes that we can nip and tuck at the rest of the federal budget and somehow take care of disasters, he's totally out of touch with reality," Durbin told the Associated Press on Tuesday. On July 28, he chaired a hearing on natural disaster policy and warned that the federal funds were low at the start of hurricane season and cautioned against "sporadic federal budgeting."

Also in opposition to offsets is Senate Appropriations' Homeland Security Subcommittee chairwoman Mary Landrieu, D-La., who announced plans for markups on boosting funding for disaster funding set to convene on Sept. 6.

"During Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in my home state six years ago today, we saw firsthand the importance of comprehensive disaster preparedness and response," she said in a statement. "The American people deserve to know that critical assistance won't be held up by petty political squabbles in Washington. It makes no sense to cut programs that help respond to future disasters in order to pay for emergencies that have already occurred."

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., ranking member on the House Homeland Security Appropriations Committee, said, "Congress should pass an emergency supplemental to replenish the disaster relief fund as soon as possible. Livelihoods and local economies depend on swift relief and assistance in the event of a natural disaster, and the millions of Americans affected by Irene and other recent events can't afford to wait around while Republicans pick another budget fight with the president by holding disaster relief hostage to further spending cuts."

FEMA's reshuffling of funds did not sit well with some lawmakers from affected regions, such as Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. "The federal government has committed resources to help Missouri communities recover from crippling flood and tornado damage, and I expect that commitment to be fulfilled expeditiously," he said. "Recovery from hurricane damage on the East Coast must not come at the expense of Missouri's rebuilding efforts. If FEMA can't fulfill its promise to our state because we have other disasters, that's unacceptable, and we need to take a serious look at how our disaster response policies are funded and implemented."

Fugate on Monday sought to clarify that FEMA's maneuver affected only long-term programs. "We said we went to immediate needs funding, and a lot of people thought, well, the people that had been impacted by the tornadoes and floods, we're going to take that money away from them," he said. "The survivors that are eligible for assistance are still getting funds. Individual assistance programs were not affected by this, nor were any protective measures or any debris clearance or any project that had already been approved."

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