WASHINGTON – The White House Friday asked Congress for $500 million in immediate disaster aid to avoid a potential cut-off of help for victims of Hurricane Irene and other disasters before the end of the month.
The request was part of a total request of $5.1 billion for this year and next to refill the disaster relief fund of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been allowed to become so depleted that the administration has been forced to put longer-term rebuilding projects on hold in order to make sure there's money for victims of Irene.
But the flooding and other damage wrought by Irene and Tropical Storm Lee is tapping out the fund and White House budget director Jacob Lew said the $500 million is needed to address the possibility that disaster funds might run out before the Sept. 30 end of the budget year.
"The supplemental appropriations ... are needed to ensure that the Disaster Relief Fund has adequate resources to meet needs in the remaining weeks of the fiscal year," White House budget director Jacob Lew said in a memorandum outlining the request.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has said the chamber would act on any disaster aid request, but it's unclear whether Republicans will insist that the $500 million portion for the remaining three weeks of the fiscal year be "paid for" with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. The White House requested the $500 million be deemed an emergency appropriation that would be financed with borrowed money.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he'll bring a disaster aid bill up for a vote soon, perhaps as early as next week. Another option would be too add the disaster aid to a must-pass measure to keep the government running past Sept. 30.
The request of $4.6 billion for fiscal 2012 comes on top of a $1.8 billion request submitted in February as part of Obama's budget. The administration has come under criticism for requesting too little disaster money.
But under the budget pact enacted last month, the White House and Congress were given considerably more leeway on disaster aid. Starting in 2012, disaster money can be awarded a special disaster aid designation by Congress and be directly added to the budget on top of the overall spending "cap" for the operating budgets of Cabinet agencies.