Republicans, who control the House and have driven hard bargains on spending cuts all year, have insisted that there will be enough money for disaster relief. But they also pledged that additional spending will mean cuts in other areas.
“Yes, we’re going to find the money,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Monday in a television interview. “We’re just going to need to make sure that there are savings elsewhere to continue to do so.”
That throws the disaster-relief effort into the heart of the spending wars that have dominated Washington for much of the past year, and recent history suggests that the battles will be acrimonious and protracted. Democrats immediately pounced on Cantor’s remarks, accusing the GOP of heartlessly withholding disaster-relief dollars.
“Instead of doing everything he can to help Virginians and people on the East Coast recover . . . Cantor is parading around on Fox News talking about how he will hold federal aid hostage unless he gets to slash the budget,” said David Mills, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia.
Although the Republican position is not new, the argument may be trickier to make with regard to disaster relief, a subject that generally transcends partisan boundaries.
The politicians who have been heaping praise on FEMA in Hurricane Irene’s wake span the political spectrum.
“We have a new FEMA,” Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) declared Sunday, adding that the agency “is much stronger than the one we had during Hurricane Katrina.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a frequent critic of federal spending, also said: “So far, FEMA has been very responsive.”
After Katrina, Lieberman co-wrote legislation authorizing FEMA to deploy personnel and supplies in advance of storms — instead of waiting for states to request assistance. The changes came at the advice of state emergency management officials, including FEMA’s current director, Craig Fugate, who once served as Florida’s top emergency boss.
“If we believe it’s possible, we don’t get tied back in the first few hours and days of a disaster,” Fugate said Monday.
As Irene churned in the Caribbean early last week, FEMA began briefing lawmakers and governors on the storm’s potential effects.
Despite the preemptive work, FEMA warned over the weekend that its disaster-relief fund, used to reimburse local governments and individuals for the costs of cleanup and repairs, is running dangerously low. It plans to delay some payments for public assistance projects, but it will continue paying individuals and some eligible jurisdictions receiving federal storm aid.