WASHINGTON – More than 30 House lawmakers banded together Thursday to form a new bipartisan coalition aimed at expediting disaster aid to areas hit by Hurricane Irene.
But the coalition is steering clear of a fight over the stickiest issue -- whether or not to require offsets for emergency funding -- and leaving it to party leaders to sort out.
The coalition, spearheaded by Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), met for the first time Thursday morning and heard updates from FEMA Administer Craig Fugate on where the agency stands on its fast-diminishing pool of funding. FEMA has responded to a record number of disasters this year, which has left it in poor financial shape. Without congressional action, the agency is on track to run out of money by the end of the month.
The unusual mix of lawmakers in the coalition have one thing in common: they all represent districts still struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. Co-chairs include Reps. Welch, Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.), G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), Thomas Marino (R-Penn.), Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), Walter Jones (R-N.C.), Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) and Bill Owens (D-N.Y.).
Welch said the coalition is planning to send a letter to House Republican leaders urging them to ensure that new FEMA money can get "through Congress and out the door" as fast as possible. But while he acknowledged that the biggest obstacle to doing so is a potentially drawn-out fight over requiring offsets for aid -- something some Republicans want -- Welch said the coalition is punting that debate to leadership and instead staying focused on doing whatever it takes to pass something fast.
The consensus among those in the coalition is that Congress "shouldn't require offsets for emergency funding," said Welch. But that is "the real decision that has to be made by leadership."
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) ruffled some feathers last month when, in the aftermath of the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that rattled the East Coast, he said that Congress would require emergency aid to be offset.
"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., the epicenter of the earthquake. "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 has since pushed back on the perception that he would fight for offsets at the expense of delaying aid.
The discussion on this issue has gotten "a little out of hand," he said Thursday during a roundtable with reporters.
"I have never said that I was holding anything hostage," he said. At the end of the day, he added, people hit by Hurricane Irene and other disasters "will get their money."
Still, Cantor has yet to say whether he would support an emergency supplemental request from the president without offsets. He has maintained that since Obama hasn't even made such a request, and may not at all, it is a moot point to discuss potential offsets for it.
As for taking a different route and providing more money to FEMA through the standard appropriations process, Cantor said Wednesday that he supports a new budgetary process that would allow an influx of disaster aid in an appropriations bill without offsets. That means he would potentially support adding more money to the $6 billion in disaster aid already included the 2012 Homeland Security spending bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
In an unusual move, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday that he plans to pull those FEMA funds out of the Homeland Security bill and move them as a standalone measure in the coming weeks. Cantor expressed skepticism at that approach, however.
"I would ask Leader Reid to provide members of the House with the details of his request and a breakdown of what immediate funding is needed for each of the specific disaster areas listed above, so that the House can appropriately act on any legislation passed by the Senate," Cantor said in a Wednesday statement.
Welch said he didn't care if leaders agreed to go with Reid's approach or include new FEMA money into an appropriations bill, as long as disaster aid gets approved quickly. He also said he had a good conversation with Cantor on Wednesday and was "encouraged" that Cantor sent an aide to the coalition's meeting on Thursday.
"Whatever the internal politics are on each side, my hope is we suspend them and just find a way to get to this," said Welch. "The debt ceiling debacle showed how divided we can be. I just don't want that process to be inflicted on storm victims."