WASHINGTON — A spending plan being pushed by Republicans would slash funding for the agency that warned Hawaii and the West Coast about the devastating tsunami in Japan.
The plan, approved by the GOP-controlled House last month, would trigger an estimated $126 million in cuts for the National Weather Service, the agency that houses the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. The center issued widespread warnings minutes after Friday's earthquake and issued guidance and updates throughout the day.
A union representing workers at the tsunami center said the proposed cuts – part of $454 million in cuts for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – could result in furloughs and rolling closures of weather service offices. If so, that could affect the center's ability to issue warnings similar to those issued Friday, said Barry Hirshorn, Pacific region chairman of the National Weather Service Employees Organization.
"People could die. It could be serious," Hirshorn said.
Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, called the GOP cuts reckless and even dangerous.
"This disaster displays the need to keep the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center fully funded and operational," said Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "I hope my Republican colleagues in the House are now aware that there was a horrific earthquake and tsunami in the Pacific."
A spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, which is leading the budget-cutting effort, said deep cuts were needed to restore the country's fiscal health. The GOP plan would cut spending for NOAA operations by nearly 10 percent below the budget enacted last year.
"The nation is in an historic fiscal crisis, and it is imperative that the Congress roll back spending in virtually every area of government – including NOAA – so that we can help our economy back on track," said spokeswoman Jennifer Hing.
While lawmakers look for cuts, they recognize the need to maintain critical life-saving and safety programs, Hing said. For instance, the GOP budget does not cut spending for a network of tsunami-detecting buoys in the Pacific Ocean.
GOP leaders will continue to work with the Obama administration and NOAA officials "to ensure that vital programs such as these receive adequate funding," Hing said.
The Obama administration opposed the GOP spending plan, and President Barack Obama has threatened to veto it.
A plan put forward by Senate Democrats would restore most of the funding for NOAA and the National Weather Service. No agreement has been reached.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said the disaster in Japan demonstrates the importance of public safety programs such as the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.
"The warning center provided critical information to public safety officials for an effective response to the tsunami," Akaka said. "The House-passed bill that attempts to slash the warning center's budget is shortsighted and puts our nation's security at risk."