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, R-Va., said the House will require offsetting spending cuts. Irene caused significant damage in Virginia, and Cantor's own district sustained damage from last week's earthquake.
Key Senate Democrats said they'll 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.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, said Tuesday the number and cost of disasters have grown dramatically over the past few years and that it's 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.
Sen. 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.
Landrieu chairs the Appropriations homeland security panel responsible for FEMA's budget, and she's pushing back hard against a GOP demand that boosts in disaster relief be "paid for" with cuts elsewhere in the budget.
The House FEMA funding measure, passed in early June, provides $1 billion in immediate disaster funding paid for by cuts to a loan program backed by the Obama administration to encourage the production of fuel-efficient vehicles and taps into Obama priorities like first responder grants to add $850 million to the administration's $1.8 billion disaster aid request for 2012.
"We should address emergency aid in the way we traditionally have in the past — without political strings attached," Landrieu said. Her version of the legislation will provide a significant increase in disaster aid funding without offsetting spending cuts as permitted under the just-passed budget deal, she said.
Landrieu isn't getting a lot of help from the White House. Its February request for disaster funding next year is insufficient to fund pending demands from past disasters like hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav and the massive Tennessee floods of last spring — and it threatens to slow rebuilding efforts in Joplin, Mo., and the Alabama towns devastated by tornadoes last spring.
The shortfalls in FEMA's disaster aid account have been obvious to lawmakers on Capitol Hill for months — and privately acknowledged to them by FEMA — but the White House has opted against asking for more money, riling many lawmakers.
"Despite the fact that the need ... is well known," Reps. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., and David Price, D-N.C., wrote the administration last month, "it unfortunately appears that no action is being taken by the administration." The lawmakers chair the House panel responsible for FEMA's budget.
FEMA now admits the disaster aid shortfall could approach $5 billion for the upcoming budget year, and that's before accounting for Irene.
As a result, funds to help states and local governments rebuild from this year's tornadoes as well as past disasters have been frozen. Instead, FEMA is only paying for the "immediate needs" of disaster-stricken communities, which include debris removal, food, water and emergency shelter.
"Going into September being the peak part of hurricane season, and with Irene, we didn't want to get to the point where we would not have the funds to continue to support the previous impacted survivors as well as respond to the next disaster," FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told reporters at the White House on Monday.
Earlier this year, the administration requested $1.8 billion for FEMA's disaster relief fund, despite pent-up demands for much more. Appropriations for last year totaled four times that amount.
FEMA estimates that the request still left the disaster fund short by $2 billion to $4.8 billion for the upcoming fiscal year. Those are figures the agency provided to Congress last spring — before Irene or the tornadoes that destroyed huge swaths of Joplin or beat up the South.
It's hardly the first time that longer-term rebuilding projects like schools and sewer systems have been frozen out to make sure there's money to provide disaster victims with immediate help with food, water and shelter. But it's frustrating to communities like Nashville, Tenn., which is rebuilding from last year's historic floods.
Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report.