POLITICS
12/04/2012 06:59 pm ET Updated Dec 04, 2012

Eric Cantor Silent On Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Offsets

Eric Cantor is rarely shy about his position on disaster relief aid. Even before Hurricane Irene made landfall last year, the House majority whip's office said extra spending on recovery efforts should be balanced by spending cuts elsewhere.

But in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Cantor and many of his conservative colleagues have suddenly gone mostly silent on such disaster relief "offsets" -- even though New York and New Jersey are collectively asking for a whopping $79 billion in federal aid. That amount is far beyond the $11.3 billion allotted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for disaster response and recovery in last year's debt deal, based on a 10-year rolling average.

"The Budget Control Act created a mechanism for disaster funding that prevented it from being redirected to non-disaster projects so it would be available in times like these, based on the 10-year average," Cantor spokesman Doug Heye said in an email to HuffPost. He later added that his office hasn't yet seen the New York and New Jersey requests, but "we're obviously very interested in receiving the proposal and will evaluate it accordingly."

That language is neutral. Or, as Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, put it in an email, "Cantor usually picks his battles carefully, and he's got his hands full with fiscal cliff issues." He added: "It has escaped no one's attention that President Obama holds most of the cards, and that the public is poised to blame Cantor and congressional Republicans if we go over the cliff."

After a year of taking beatings in the press over calls for offsets in response to disasters, conservative Republicans are treading far more carefully in the wake of Sandy, which killed at least 132 people in the mainland U.S.

"Cantor got plenty of blowback when he objected to Irene expenditures," said Sabato. "I doubt he wants to repeat the experience."

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who met with Cantor on Monday, said the representative wants to consider post-storm damage assessments and confer with members of his caucus before he makes a decision on offsets.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) went a step further. "We've been assured ... this is going to be a separate matter," Smith told The Philadelphia Inquirer, about Cantor's position. "I don't believe there will be offsets on this at all."

If true, that will be a remarkable turnaround for Cantor, who led the charge within the Republican caucus for such offsets in the first place. After Irene and other storms, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) endured a major embarrassment when his own caucus voted down a short-term spending plan in September 2011.

This year, Boehner is trying to lead his rambunctious caucus through fiscal cliff negotiations. Reluctance to endanger the talks may account for some of the conservative silence. Then there is the fact that disaster aid offsets provided campaign ad fodder for Democrats, as recently as the waning days of the presidential election.

One issue that is probably not on Cantor's mind: aid for his own state of Virginia. While the state was brushed by Sandy, the Old Dominion had only $4.6 million in damage to homes, private property, and businesses, according to the state's emergency management department.

In New Jersey, which was hit hard by Sandy, one Republican who has in the past called for disaster offsets is Rep. Scott Garrett. But after being criticized for failing to affix his name to one letter about the need for disaster aid, he quickly reversed course and signed another. Garrett's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, has said there should be at least some offsets for the disaster aid New York and New Jersey are requesting. On Thursday, her fellow Republican, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, will head to Washington to make his case for disaster aid.

UPDATE: This article has been edited to include an additional comment from Doug Heye, spokesman for Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

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