WASHINGTON -- As frantic rescue missions continued Monday in Oklahoma following the catastrophic tornadoes that ripped through the state, it appeared increasingly likely that residents who lost homes and businesses would turn to the federal government for emergency disaster aid. That could put the state's two Republican senators in an awkward position.
Sens. Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn, both Republicans, are fiscal hawks who have repeatedly voted against funding disaster aid for other parts of the country. They also have opposed increased funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which administers federal disaster relief.
Late last year, Inhofe and Coburn both backed a plan to slash disaster relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy. In a December press release, Coburn complained that the Sandy Relief bill contained "wasteful spending," and identified a series of items he objected to, including "$12.9 billion for future disaster mitigation activities and studies."
Coburn spokesman John Hart on Monday evening confirmed that the senator will seek to ensure that any additional funding for tornado disaster relief in Oklahoma be offset by cuts to federal spending elsewhere in the budget. "That's always been his position [to offset disaster aid]," Hart said. "He supported offsets to the bill funding the OKC bombing recovery effort." Those offsets were achieved in 1995 by tapping federal funds that had not yet been appropriated.
In 2011, both senators opposed legislation that would have granted necessary funding for FEMA when the agency was set to run out of money. Sending the funds to FEMA would have been "unconscionable," Coburn said at the time.
Hart said Coburn had "never made parochial calculations" about Oklahoma's disproportionate share of disaster funds, "as his voting record and campaign against earmarks demonstrates." Hart added that Coburn, "makes no apologies for voting against disaster aid bills that are often poorly conceived and used to finance priorities that have little to do with disasters."
A representative for Inhofe could not immediately be reached for comment. Inhofe earlier tweeted: "The devastation in Oklahoma is heartbreaking. Please join me and #PrayforOklahoma. Spread the word."
Coburn also put out a message on Twitter, writing, "My thoughts and prayers are with those in Oklahoma affected by the tragic tornado outbreak."
Oklahoma currently ranks third in the nation after Texas and California in terms of total federal disaster and fire declarations, which kickstart the federal emergency relief funding process. Just last month, President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration for the state following severe snowstorms.
And despite their voting record on disaster aid for other states, both Coburn and Inhofe appear to sing a different tune when it comes to such funding for Oklahoma.
In January of 2007, Coburn urged federal officials to speed disaster relief aid after the state faced a major ice storm.
A year later, in 2008, Inhofe lauded the fact that emergency relief from the Department of Housing and Urban Development would be given to 24 Oklahoma counties. "The impact of severe weather has been truly devastating to many Oklahoma communities across the state. I am pleased that the people whose lives have been affected by disastrous weather are getting much-needed federal assistance," he said at the time.
The cost of the recovery effort for this week's tornadoes is likely to be high. After a spate of tornadoes in the state in 1999, Oklahomans requested and received $67.8 million in federal relief funds.
Sam Stein contributed.
This article has been updated to include the comments of Coburn's spokesman.
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