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Disaster Relief Funding Fractures Republicans

A handful of Senate GOP appropriators might be setting themselves up for a standoff with House Republicans over whether to pay for disaster funding in the wake of several recent natural disasters that have menaced almost every state.

Republicans on the Senate Appropriations panel voiced no objections to approval of $7 billion in emergency disaster aid Tuesday, and some even defended their decision to allow disaster aid to pass without offsets.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, said that the additional emergency spending was part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling, which allows lawmakers to raise spending caps for disasters.

“We are within the budget cap adopted by the debt ceiling agreement,” Alexander said of the extra $11.5 billion that the debt deal provided for disaster aid. The president has signed disaster declarations for 47 states in recent months.

Despite that budgetary cushion, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) last month called for disaster relief funding to be offset by cuts in other areas of the federal budget. Cantor’s comments came amid the natural disasters that have hit his home state, which suffered damage from Hurricane Irene and a 5.8-magnitude earthquake in August.

Alexander said he understands Cantor’s position. “I think we have to address emergency spending,” Alexander said. “It’s grown and grown and grown as a percent of the budget, and it obviously has been abused in the past. I haven’t made a decision about how best to resolve that.

“But in this case, we are staying within the budget ceiling adopted in early August,” Alexander continued. He declined to speculate whether the House would go along with the Senate position on emergency spending.

Alexander’s comments came after his subcommittee on Tuesday approved more than $1 billion in disaster aid that would not be paid for as part of the Energy and water development appropriations bill. Also on Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security approved a fiscal 2012 spending bill, which included $6 billion in emergency spending for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund. Those funds also would not be paid for with cuts elsewhere.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), chairman of the Homeland Security subpanel, said she hopes House Republicans do go along. She said she plans to discuss the issue with Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), her counterpart on the House Appropriations panel.

“I am mindful of Majority Leader Cantor’s comments,” Landrieu said. “But I have also heard from [other] Republican leaders and Republican governors that they are not in the mood to fight over how to help disaster victims. We’ll figure out how to pay for it later; they want to get the help to them now.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has been loudly urging Congress to put aside its partisan bickering and quickly provide aid to disaster victims. New Jersey was hit with serious floods resulting from Hurricane Irene.

“I am hoping that the Members of the House and the Senate will agree to follow the lead of the Budget Control Act, which was passed by a majority of the Congress,” Landrieu said.

Landrieu called the $6 billion in FEMA funding in her bill a “substantial down payment,” but she added that more would likely be needed.

She also said she was concerned about how to pay for around $1.5 billion in additional funding that will be needed in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

“There is still an immediate problem for this year … and we are going to work in the next few days to resolve that,” Landrieu said.

One possible vehicle to provide the funding could be a short-term continuing resolution that House Republicans plan to pass later this month. Aides said it would likely be designed to fund the government through November — enough time for GOP leaders to persuade their membership to avoid a repeat of last spring’s shutdown fight.

However, according to numerous GOP aides, it is unclear whether the CR — which is not expected to include cuts beyond the levels agreed to in last month’s debt deal — will act as a vehicle for additional funds for disaster relief on the East Coast, in Texas and in other areas.

Leadership aides said a decision on a final length for the CR has not yet been decided.

“We will consider a short-term CR no later than the week of Sept. 19, and it is expected to take us through late fall,” a leadership aide said.

Aides said a final verdict on disaster funding won’t be made until the White House provides a formal request to the House and Senate.

Although pushing a final CR fight until the fall will mean yet another difficult vote on federal spending for Republicans, it does provide leadership with the time it needs to convince Members that a message focused on job creation is more salient than one of continued spending cuts.

“We will be trying to emphasize jobs over shutdowns,” a senior GOP aide said Tuesday. Several colleagues agreed, explaining that leadership wants to stick to the level of cuts included in the debt deal, rather than the more drastic reductions that are part of Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget.

But that might be easier said than done. The House has already passed a number of appropriations measures based on Ryan’s budget levels, and using the debt deal’s levels would essentially mean Republicans would be voting for a second, larger spending number in those programs.

Additionally, conservative activists outside of the House could also put significant pressure on their ideological brethren to ignore the budget deal and demand further cuts. “I think there will be some angst amongst grass-roots activists over that. … But I think it’s too soon to tell” whether it will become a full-blown problem for leadership, a conservative activist said Tuesday.

Another possible route could be a stand-alone emergency supplemental spending bill. Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said he is exploring how best to provide the disaster funding.

The question of a separate disaster bill is also a political one, given Senate Democratic leaders are gaming out whether it might be advantageous to confront Republicans on a clean disaster measure, rather than one muddied by other federal spending.

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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