WASHINGTON – On its first day back from summer recess Tuesday, Congress rushed to approve $2 billion in emergency money to deliver disaster relief to areas of Florida reeling from effects of two hurricanes.
A voice vote in the House and agreement by the Senate sent the bill directly to President Bush (search) before his Wednesday tour of hurricane-hit areas of the politically crucial state.
"The $2 billion is a start," said Rep. Bill Young (search), R-Fla., who heads the House Appropriations Committee. "We have no idea yet what the total requirements could be."
Bush asked Congress on Aug. 27 to approve $2 billion for recovery efforts after Hurricane Charley (search). On Monday, after Hurricane Frances' sweep across the state, he designated his request an emergency, which made the money available in the budget year ending Sept. 30.
A White House official said Bush was expected to sign the aid bill before leaving for Florida.
Almost all the $2 billion would go to replenish disaster relief funds of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Young said FEMA would run out of disaster money on Wednesday without immediate action by Congress.
The legislation also designates $30 million for Small Business Administration loan programs.
FEMA uses the money for direct aid to families, debris removal, infrastructure repairs and emergency food and shelter.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said aid to Florida was the Senate's top priority after its return from the six-week summer recess. "We need to reach out and aggressively respond to help the people of Florida," Frist said.
Both House and Senate lawmakers acknowledged that the $2 billion was only a down payment on federal aid to the state. They said Congress would have to consider a second spending bill once the total damage from the storms becomes clearer.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said the money would not even cover FEMA's expenses related to Charley, and the departments of Agriculture and Transportation as well as the Pentagon, the Small Business Administration and NASA will need extra money to deal with the disaster.
The federal government spent $6 billion after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, said Nelson, who on Tuesday wrote Bush asking him to endorse a second relief package of $2.5 billion.
Young insisted that "there's nothing political about this" quick response to the hurricanes in Florida, a state crucial to deciding the November presidential elections.
One Florida Democrat, Rep. Robert Wexler, said the $2 billion was an "anemic request" in light of damage that could reach $40 billion.
"President Bush is planning to view the damage from Hurricane Frances on Wednesday with a $2 billion request that is woefully inadequate to address the damage and devastation that has occurred throughout the state," Wexler said.
Several Democratic senators also demanded that any future money for the Florida cleanup be linked to help for other others of the country suffering from natural disasters, such as the drought-stricken Northern Plains.
"What are the criteria and are they going to apply to any state besides Florida?" asked Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn. "Does it require that the governor of the state be the brother of the president?" he asked, referring to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.