New Congress Will Tackle Disaster Relief

When a new Congress convenes next week, lawmakers will call on the Bush administration to do all it can to help victims of the tsunamis (search) in Asia and Africa. Questions of how much aid will be needed — and how to pay for it — will come later.

Lawmakers and congressional aides say the Bush administration should have enough funds available for immediate relief operations without having to request more right away.

But more money will likely be needed at some point to replenish emergency funds depleted by the disaster and to help pay for longer term relief and reconstruction.

Some lawmakers say af a package expected early next year for funding for the Iraq war, for which the administration is likely to ask for $75 billion to $100 billion.

A senior Democrat, Patrick Leahy (search) of Vermont, said the administration should seek new funds as part of the Iraq (search) package instead of stripping money from existing foreign aid programs, such as those fighting childhood hunger and diseases.

Another option, Leahy said, would be using billions of unspent dollars intended for Iraq reconstruction. The administration has spent little of the $18.4 billion in reconstruction funds approved by Congress last year, citing security problems and bureaucratic delays.

"That would be the quickest and easiest way because you wouldn't have to hurt the most devastated to help the most devastated," said Leahy, top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, which oversees foreign aid.

But Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., who chairs the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, cautioned against shifting money from Iraq reconstruction. He said those funds were supposed to be spent over three years.

"It's not as though they haven't spent it because it's not needed," he said.

Kolbe said it is possible — but not certain — that the administration could request relief funds as part of next year's Iraq spending bill.

Any funding decisions will depend on the scope of the damage, the contributions from other nations and whether funds can be shifted from other programs, he said.

U.S. officials are providing an initial $35 million aid package and have pledged to provide more help. The Red Cross has predicted the death toll across 12 countries could pass 100,000.

Some lawmakers may get a close perspective of the damage. Rep. Jim Leach, chairman of the House International Asia and Pacific subcommittee, and the panel's top Democrat, American Samoa delegate Rep. Eni H. Faleomavaega, had previously planned trips to the region for early January. Their itineraries are now uncertain and it is unclear how close they will get to the affected areas.

Still, Leach, R-Iowa, said the trip "is now taking on a new dimension from my perspective."

"It's important for the legislative branch to have an assessment and also to express interest," he said.

Lawmakers have been individually calling for generous aid to the affected areas and will likely do so collectively after they return. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., will offer a resolution next week calling for U.S. and world organizations to do as much as possible, said Lugar's spokesman, Andy Fisher.