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Oklahoma Tornado Reignites Disaster Funding Debate

Even as emergency personnel continued to search through the debris of Monday’s tornado in Oklahoma, talk on Capitol Hill had turned to the question of paying for the recovery.

Rep. Peter T. King, a Republican from Long Island, told CQ Roll Call he was prepared to go to bat for the victims in Moore, Okla., as he did when Superstorm Sandy devastated the Northeast last year.

“I think they should get every penny they need,” King said Tuesday. “I’ve been through this. We can do the political games later on; the important thing is to get them the aid as quickly as they need it and not to make a political issue out of it.”

King railed against his own leaders for failing to hold a vote on Sandy relief in December, and then called on New York Republican donors not to contribute to his House GOP colleagues until they allowed an aid package for recovery from Superstorm Sandy through the chamber. The 112th Congress gaveled to a close without the House moving on relief to victims of that storm.

If Congress needs to provide additional tornado relief funds in this case, it appears that some of Oklahoma’s own lawmakers could be a major stumbling block, just as they and other fiscal hawks were when King was arguing for Sandy relief in New York and New Jersey.

Asked by MSNBC about his opposition to the aid package for recovery from Superstorm Sandy, Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., called this week’s situation “totally different.”

“They were getting things, for instance, that was supposed to be in New Jersey. They were getting things in the Virgin Islands. They were fixing roads there. They were putting roofs on houses in Washington, D.C.; everybody was getting in and exploiting the tragedy that took place,” Inhofe said. “That won’t happen in Oklahoma.”

However, Inhofe may have to fight off a number of his colleagues to keep a disaster bill clean. Many lawmakers with declared disasters or droughts in the Northeast and Midwest were cut out of the Sandy funding bill and would likely seek to rectify that situation on any emergency funding bill for Oklahoma.

“Pork is in the eye of the beholder and has been for 223 years since the founding of the country,” Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., said in response to Inhofe’s MSNBC appearance.

Similarly, Oklahoma’s other GOP senator, Tom Coburn, told CQ Roll Call on Monday night that he would insist on offsets for any disaster bill aimed at the storms in Oklahoma.

Despite that, Landrieu, the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, pledged that Oklahoma disaster aid would not be offset by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.

“I do want to respect Sen. Coburn’s efforts to be consistent, but he’s consistently wrong,” Landrieu said. “There will be no offsets for Oklahoma. That has been taken care of by a strong group of bipartisan senators led by myself and [Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.] that means that when disaster strikes we don’t ensue with debates, we ensue with help.”

Coburn’s office appeared to be in damage-control mode Tuesday. As the senator faced a barrage of criticism on social media, his office circulated a list of things for reporters to keep in mind in the aftermath of the tornado.

“Dr. Coburn is on his way to Oklahoma now to assess the damage first-hand. In his capacity as the ranking member of the committee that oversees FEMA, he wants to ensure that the federal government responds in the most compassionate, effective and efficient way possible,” Coburn’s office said.

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, dodged multiple attempts by reporters to get specific answers on what the House planned to do with this latest disaster.

The reprise of the offset debate started when CQ Roll Call asked Coburn on Monday about paying for the disaster relief effort. He said he wouldn’t change his view of disaster spending, which has consistently been that there are plenty of spending cuts that can be made to offset the cost of emergency disaster aid.

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, an ally of Coburn on government waste issues, struck a pragmatic tone.

Asked about his colleagues’ position on offsets, McCain noted the urgency of the situation on the ground. “I understand that, and I appreciate that if we can get it done quickly, but time is of the essence here,” McCain told reporters. “A tragedy has taken place. We need to take care of it.”

This time, money exists in the federal coffers that should at least delay a funding crisis. Senate aides say the disaster relief fund for fiscal 2013 still has about $11.6 billion available for urgent needs. However, the start of Atlantic hurricane season is less than two weeks away.

“The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground, there for them, beside them as long as it takes. For there are homes and schools to rebuild, businesses and hospitals to reopen, there are parents to console, first responders to comfort and, of course, frightened children who will need our continued love and attention,” President Barack Obama said Tuesday morning.

King predicted that Congress would have to act. “I don’t see how they get by without additional money,” he said. “There should be enough for the FEMA money, but that’s only part of it.”

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., echoed that sentiment in a statement, saying she would be among those leading the Senate’s efforts on a supplemental should it become necessary.

“I absolutely support the President and his commitment that we must match today’s words of sympathy with our deeds in the coming days, weeks and months. This is a time for neighbor helping neighbor. This is not the time for a ‘budgeteering’ battle,” Mikulski said.

As for King, his sympathy for Oklahomans goes deeper than his experience with Sandy.

Moore happens to be the hometown of 4th District Rep. Tom Cole, one of the Oklahoma Republicans who encouraged his colleagues to support the Sandy aid package for the East Coast.

“I’ll do whatever Tom Cole wants me to do. He had nothing personally or politically to gain, and he was really on the front lines for us on Sandy aid,” King said. “Tom Cole — and this is really tragically ironic — was the one person who actually fought for New York on the House floor, and he had nothing to gain. He did it really out of decency, and it was his district that was hit the hardest.”

During floor debate on Sandy aid, Cole had referenced one other reason to support that bill. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., is a descendant of a senator who opposed Indian removal.

“Theodore Frelinghuysen rose on the floor of the Senate to protest Indian removal, removal of my tribe from Mississippi and many other tribes to what’s now Oklahoma,” Cole said at the time. “He wasn’t successful in that fight, but he fought it nonetheless. And, frankly, it would be incredibly ungrateful for me now not to, at the time of his people’s greatest need, return the favor.”

Now King, at least, plans to return the favor.

Emma Dumain and Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.

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