WASHINGTON -- As East Coasters brace for what some say will be a historic pummel by Hurricane Irene, at least one lawmaker is fuming over a requirement by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) that any potential emergency disaster aid be offset by spending cuts.
"It is sinful to require us to cut somewhere ... in order to provide emergency disaster assistance for American citizens," Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) told The Huffington Post on Friday.
The Louisiana Democrat pointed out that this weekend is the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated his district and cost the federal government more than $100 billion. That recovery effort would have been delayed "by years" if Congress had required the same kind of spending cuts to offset aid, he said.
"I have been one who has been preparing for the hurricane, trying to give people some comfort. One thing they need to know is the federal government can come to their aid," Richmond said. "I don't think we're in a position, given the rules set up by the majority, that we're going to be able to come to their aid quickly."
Cantor raised some eyebrows on Wednesday when, in the aftermath of the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that rattled the East Coast and originated in his district, he said Congress will help those hurt by the earthquake but will require finding offsets for any federal aid.
"When there's a disaster there's an appropriate federal role and we will find the monies," Cantor said during a news conference in Mineral, Va. "But we've had discussions about these things before and those monies will be offset with appropriate savings or cost-cutting elsewhere in order to meet the priority of the federal government's role in a situation like this."
Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring on Friday declined to say where Republicans would look to make cuts to pay for a potential storm aid package.
"We aren't going to answer a hypothetical question about hypothetical federal aid caused by hypothetical damage," Dayspring said. "If a request for federal aid is made, we’ll have a response. Until that time, we hope precautions are taken to minimize the damage caused by the storm."
The message from House Republican leaders on the matter is, at the very least, puzzling.
For starters, offsets aren't required for emergency aid, so Cantor's recent push for doing so is a break from a bipartisan tradition of simply rushing through needed funds.
Cantor's office also won't comment on whether the lawmaker would require offsets for aid specifically tied to Hurricane Irene. And a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) ducked the question altogether when asked if Boehner agreed with Cantor's call for offsets for emergency aid.
"Our concern now is safety," Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said Friday. "We'll discuss costs when and if they occur."
The coming days will decide whether Congress should prepare for a fight over the need to pay for emergency aid. If the damage from Hurricane Irene is severe, President Barack Obama would set things in motion by submitting an emergency spending request to Congress. But for now, nobody knows if or when that will happen, until the hurricane hits and damages can be assessed.
Obama didn't seek emergency aid when the country endured its last major natural disaster. Back in May, when storms ravaged the Midwest, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was able to eat the costs with funds it had set aside for such disasters. The same scuffle over requiring offsets surfaced during that fight, but then disappeared since the president never made a request.
The difference this time around is that FEMA is closer to running out of money, which makes the prospect of an emergency aid request more likely in the event of widespread destruction.
What is "scary" is how spread thin FEMA is, said a House Democratic aide familiar with disaster relief operations.
FEMA is now running relief operations "in every single state" due to a record number of disasters this year, said the aide, and the agency has been projected to run out of money by the end of September.
State leaders are already preparing for the worst with Hurricane Irene. Gov. Bob McDonnell on Thursday declared a state of emergency for Virginia ahead of the storm. And on Friday, Obama declared a federal emergency for New York state.
"All indications point to this being a historic hurricane," Obama said during remarks Friday. "Although we can’t predict with perfect certainty the impact of Irene over the next few days, the federal government has spent the better part of last week working closely with officials in communities that could be affected by this storm to see to it that we are prepared."
A House Appropriations Committee spokeswoman underscored the urgency of FEMA running low on funds -- and signaled an increasing likelihood that Obama will seek emergency aid if Hurricane Irene wreaks havoc.
"If FEMA goes to 'immediate needs' (which may happen soon) then we should finally get an official funding request at some point," the spokeswoman told The Huffington Post.
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