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Disaster Relief Could Become Presidential Campaign Issue

Hurricane Isaac’s arrival on the Gulf Coast could bring a Congressional debate about disaster relief spending into the presidential race.

Both sides are certain to focus on the immediate needs of residents as the storm makes landfall early Wednesday, but the renewed focus on the federal funding of disaster response could bring questions about the disaster funding model contained in the House-adopted budget resolution written by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.).

Ryan and other House Republicans proposed requiring additional money for federal disaster aid be offset with reductions in other federal spending, which drew the ire of Democrats led by Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, which funds the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“If I had not been successful last summer in fixing how we fund disaster relief, governors today would be looking for offsets instead of sandbags. Politics has no place when natural or man-made disasters strike,” Landrieu said in a statement to Roll Call.

“The American public expects their government to quickly provide assistance to recover and rebuild,” she said.

Under an agreement negotiated as part of the deal to raise the debt limit, the federal spending limit this year could be increased by $11.5 billion. FEMA and other federal agencies with disaster recovery functions are on track to spend most of that money.

A Landrieu aide said that before Isaac, FEMA indicated the agency could reach the end of the fiscal year at the end of September with about $739 million to spare. There is now about $1.5 billion left in the special disaster fund.

Republicans ultimately agreed to fund disaster relief above the spending limit established by the debt limit deal. In addition, the House’s fiscal 2013 Homeland Security spending bill would allow for some extra funds.

The other two Gulf Coast states bracing for Isaac are represented by senior GOP Senate appropriators, Thad Cochran (Miss.) and Richard Shelby (Ala.).

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced an agreement in principle before departing for the August recess that would fund the government for six months, a bid by both sides to prevent having a protracted debate over federal spending in September.

House and Senate Appropriations aides are working through the recess to draft the spending agreements and work through details of any adjustments that need to be made.

While it is too early to predict how much money will be needed to respond to Isaac, another major disaster next month could use up available funds.

That would leave lawmakers in both parties in the uncomfortable position of having to at least ponder the need for more federal spending in the middle of a debate about how to cut the federal deficit.

“Any talk of new disaster aid is premature. Our focus right now is the safety of everyone in the storm’s path,” Romney campaign spokesman Brendan Buck said.

Similarly, the White House said this was not the time to be politicizing the disaster relief issue, though Press Secretary Jay Carney alluded to the budget debate in remarks to reporters aboard Air Force One today.

“I remember there was a fight in Congress last fall over making sure that we had funds ready for future disasters and there were some leading House Republicans who opposed that,” Carney said. “And the president fought hard to ensure that those funds were in place for just this reason.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is skipping the Republican convention to contend with the storm, was critical of the Obama administration decision to not immediately grant federal reimbursement for a broad array of protective efforts in advance of landfall.

“Given the extraordinary developments of this storm and its approaching impact on the State of Louisiana, I ask that you exercise your discretion to approve the State’s pending request for all emergency protective measures,” Jindal wrote in an Aug. 27 letter to Obama.

Speaking at Iowa State University in Ames on Tuesday, Obama began his remarks with a reference to preparations for the storm before turning to his stump speech.

“We’ve been getting ready for this storm for days. We’ve got response teams and supplies in place. America will be there to help folks recover no matter what this storm brings because when disaster strikes we’re not Democrats or Republicans first, we are Americans first,” Obama said. “We are one family. We’re one family and we help our neighbors in need.”