Conservative Okla. lawmakers face dilemma: Will they support tornado relief funding?

Rep. Tom Cole, who represents the city of Moore, Okla., in Congress said he never expected to see a storm quite like the tornado that tore through his town Monday.

Oklahoma has one of the most conservative congressional delegations of any state: seven Republican men, including fierce advocates for cutting federal spending.

Five of those seven voted no in January on a bill to provide $50 billion in disaster funding for states hit by Hurricane Sandy.

On Tuesday, the disaster was Oklahoma’s instead, a deadly tornado that swept through the town of Moore on Monday afternoon. So those representing Oklahoma all faced the same question: Would they support an influx of new funding — if necessary — for disaster relief efforts in Oklahoma?

Sen. Tom Coburn (R) said he hadn’t changed his mind.

In past disasters, including the 1995 bombing at the Oklahoma City federal building, Coburn has said that any extra federal spending for disasters should be offset by cuts elsewhere. A spokesman said Coburn would stick to that demand.

More money for Oklahoma must mean less money for some other federal program. If not, Coburn wouldn’t vote for it.

“If the choice is between borrowing [to pay for disaster funding] and reducing spending on largess,” Coburn spokesman John Hart said by e-mail, “we should divert funds from largess to victims.”

The state’s other senator, James M. Inhofe (R), also voted against the Sandy relief bill. But on Tuesday, Inhofe seemed open to supporting a bill to provide extra funding for Oklahoma.

“That was totally different,” Inhofe said on MSNBC, referring to the Sandy bill. At the time it passed, many conservatives thought that the Sandy bill was written too broadly and that its funds would be used to pay for things unrelated to the immediate disaster.

They were getting things, for instance, that was supposed to be in New Jersey. They had things in the Virgin Islands. They were fixing roads there. They were putting roofs on houses in Washington, D.C,” Inhofe said. “Everybody was getting in and exploiting the tragedy that took place. That won’t happen in Oklahoma.”

Rep. Tom Cole, who lives in the devastated town of Moore, was one of two Oklahoma Republicans to support the Sandy relief bill. (Rep. Frank D. Lucas was the other.)

“Each member ought to recognize at some point his or her area will be hit by some disaster, and they will be here seeking support,” Cole had said on the House floor when he urged the passage of the Sandy bill. “So I would ask that they consider this request from our fellow Americans in the Northeast in the same way they would want their requests considered at the appropriate and necessary time for them.”

On Tuesday, Cole said he hadn’t expected that it would happen to him so soon.

“In a time like this, honestly, you’re lucky to be an American, because the resources of the federal government are there for you, just as they were for Sandy victims and Katrina victims and Oklahoma City bombing victims,” Cole said on CNN. “So we’ll get through it, but [with] a lot of help from our friends and our fellow Americans.”

At this point, all these questions are theoretical. There is no Oklahoma disaster relief bill. There may never be one.

At the moment, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a large stockpile of funds to pay for disaster response; members of Congress estimated it at $11.6 billion.

There was wide agreement that there should be enough to handle the Oklahoma disaster, which damaged a far smaller area than the massive Sandy.

“Right now, we don’t need the money,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Tuesday afternoon.

If more funding is requested by FEMA this year, it probably won’t be until this summer — if a string of hurricanes and tornadoes depletes the disaster account.

If that happens, the dispute that stalled the Sandy bill may flare up again. Democrats, in essence, think it’s not necessary to cut other kinds of federal spending in order to divert new money to “act of God” disasters. Conservative Republicans do. And in recent years, GOP leaders have followed that demand.

On Tuesday, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who grew teary-eyed during a morning news conference discussing Cole and the town of Moore, ducked the issue of whether he would require spending offsets.

“We’ll work with the administration to make sure that they have the resources they need,” he said.

In the case of the Oklahoma tornado, it could be weeks before officials have a good estimate of the damages.

“We don’t even know what we need at this point,” Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said Tuesday on MSNBC. Lankford also voted against the $50 billion Sandy disaster relief bill. He did vote for a smaller $9.7 billion aid package for Sandy victims.

“Obviously, we give [FEMA] a large budget so it will handle major disasters. We’re early in the year, and so we don’t know what’s required at this point,” Lankford said. “And so we’ll have to wait on all the timing and the dollars. All that’s for another day.”

Coburn and Inhofe are devoted conservatives with long histories of voting against otherwise popular programs in the Senate because they were opposed to the costs. The state’s House delegation is divided along generational lines that help create its ideological divide.

Cole and Lucas are House veterans who wield significant influence. Cole is a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, which doles out dollars for federal agencies and also disaster funds, and Lucas is chairman of the Agriculture Committee. The other three Republicans have less than three years of combined experience in Congress; they are the newcomers infused with the anti-spending tea party ethos that took root in 2010.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R), who voted against the Sandy bill, expressed confidence Tuesday that FEMA’s existing funds would be enough. Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R), who also voted against the Sandy bill, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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