Conflict in Congress could slow victim aid

By Andrew Taylor
Associated Press / August 31, 2011

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WASHINGTON - A political battle between the Tea Party-driven House and the Democratic-controlled Senate is threatening to slow money to the government’s main disaster aid account, which is so low that new rebuilding projects have been put on hold to help victims of Hurricane Irene and future disasters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has less than $800 million in its disaster coffers. A debate over whether to cut spending elsewhere in the federal budget to pay for tornado and hurricane aid seems likely to delay legislation to provide the billions of dollars needed to replenish FEMA’s disaster aid in the upcoming budget year.

House majority leader Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, said the House will require offsetting spending cuts. Irene caused significant damage in Virginia, and Cantor’s district sustained damage from last week’s quake.

Key Senate Democrats said they will oppose the idea of offsetting cuts when a bill funding FEMA gets under way in the Senate.

Of $130 billion provided in FEMA disaster funds over the past two decades, some $110 billion has been provided as emergency funding in addition to the annual budget.

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s number two Democrat, said yesterday that the number and cost of disasters have grown dramatically over the past few years and that it is unrealistic to require offsetting spending cuts. Durbin presided over a recent hearing on disaster costs.

“If [Cantor] 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 said.

Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana - her state is still rebuilding six years after Hurricane Katrina - said that she will take advantage of a little-noticed provision in the recently passed debt limit and budget deal that permits Congress to pass several billion dollars in additional FEMA disaster aid without budget cuts elsewhere. The provision in the new law would allow at least $6 billion in disaster aid to be added to the budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.