U.S. Wants to Shift Storm Funds

The White House sent Congress a request yesterday to use $17 billion approved for hurricane relief for new purposes, such as rebuilding highways, levees and federal facilities damaged by the storms.

Even though almost $40 billion remains in Federal Emergency Management Agency coffers, rules restrict its use. The request would transfer these funds to projects repairing Interstate 10 in Mississippi and Louisiana, strengthening levees, rebuilding military bases such as Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, and other recovery-related construction.

White House budget chief Joshua M. Bolten acknowledged that earlier administration requests overestimated the cost of the immediate response to the hurricanes. When a $52 billion aid bill passed Congress in early September, Bolten estimated that the funds could last only a few weeks.

Now, Bolten said that even after diverting $17 billion in FEMA emergency funds to 11 Cabinet departments and the Environmental Protection Agency, FEMA should have enough money to last through May for activities such as clearing debris and providing financial help to victims.

In a nod to conservatives, the White House urged lawmakers to kill $2.3 billion in non-hurricane funds that have been approved but not yet spent.

Lawmakers from northern states had been hoping for new emergency heat subsidy funds, but the request did not ask for any such funds. Instead, Bolten endorsed House efforts to provide heating aid as part of a broader GOP budget package under development.

Panel Votes to Cut Food Stamps

On a 25 to 20 party-line vote, a Republican-run House committee voted to cut food stamps by $844 million, just hours after a new government report showed more Americans are struggling to put food on the table.

About 300,000 Americans would lose benefits because of tighter eligibility rules for food stamps, the major U.S. anti-hunger program, under the plan. The cuts would be part of $3.7 billion pared from Agriculture Department programs over five years in government-wide spending reductions.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) defended the decision, saying only a sliver of food stamp spending was affected and, for the most part, the cuts would eliminate people not truly eligible.

"This is not a giveaway program that results in windfall profits," Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said in opposing the cuts. "That is not moral. That is not American."

Activists said hunger rates were up for the fifth year in a row, so the cuts were a mistake.

"It is hard to imagine any congressional action that is more detached from reality," said James D. Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center.

The committee package becomes part of an omnibus budget-cutting bill. The House plan would also cut U.S. crop supports by $1 billion, land stewardship by $760 million, research by $620 million and rural development by $446 million. The Senate's budget reduction plan would not touch food stamps, but would cut $3 billion from other USDA programs.

For the Record

* A fund to help defray former House majority leader Tom DeLay's legal expenses raised $318,000 from July to September, the most ever in a three-month period, according to the trustee. The Texas Republican was forced to relinquish his leadership post last month after being indicted in his home state on money laundering and conspiracy charges. In the last quarter, he raised about $177,000 from individual donors and $141,000 from corporations and political committees, said Brent Perry, the trustee. "It was our best quarter ever," Perry said. "Money is still flowing in."

* Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) must pay a $33,000 fine and reimburse as much as $72,000 to political donors after accepting excessive contributions in 2002, the Federal Election Commission said. The fine alone exceeds the total amount in McKinney's campaign account through Sept. 30. The alleged illegal activity stems from McKinney's 2002 reelection campaign, which she lost in the Democratic primary to Denise Majette. McKinney was out of Congress for two years before winning the seat back in 2004 when Majette left to run for the Senate.

* The government banned imports of beluga caviar and the sturgeon that produces the expensive eggs originating in the Black Sea basin. Imports of beluga sturgeon, both meat and eggs, will no longer be allowed from Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, the Russian Federation, Serbia and Montenegro, Turkey, and Ukraine, the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service said. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said the bans would continue "until there is significant progress" with conservation programs in the Caspian and Black Sea regions.

-- From News Services