Storm building over relief spending for Irene, other disasters

WASHINGTON–A political tempest is brewing over the Obama Administration’s request for $6.9 billion in disaster funding to help states hit by Hurricane Irene and a spate of other recent events.

On Friday, the White House sent Congress a request for $500 million in emergency funding to replenish the nearly-depleted coffers of the federal Disaster Relief Fund. That money is needed to help carry relief efforts through the end of fiscal year 2011, which ends Sept. 30.

At the same time, the White House also asked for $6.4 billion in disaster relief funding for fiscal year 2012. That’s $4.6 billion more than the President initially sought in his 2012 budget request, including an extra $1.5 billion to respond to the massive damage Hurricane Irene caused in Connecticut and other states.

The Senate could take up both funding requests as early as this week, but the issue may get tangled up in the highly-charged debate over reducing the federal debt and the scramble to finish the annual spending bills that will fund the government for fiscal year 2012.

The Administration’s disaster aid request comes as Congress faces a daunting task of reducing federal spending by $1.5 trillion over the next year–even more if lawmakers adopt any elements of the jobs plan that President Obama laid out last week.

But it also comes at an urgent moment for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund. As of Friday, FEMA had less than $500 million in that fund, which is used to help states, cities, and families recover and rebuild in the wake of natural disasters.

Because of its quickly diminishing resources, FEMA is now operating the Disaster Relief Fund in an “emergency needs posture,” which means the agency is delaying aid for longer-term rebuilding and mitigation projects and instead channeling all its funding towards immediate relief efforts.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he planned to bring up a stand-alone emergency bill as early as this week to refill FEMA’s disaster aid pot. He called for a package that would cover the final weeks of 2011 and all 2012, costing as much as $7 billion.

“It looks like FEMA may run out of money before we get to the end of this fiscal year,” said Adam Jentleson, Reid’s spokesman. Congress needs to ensure that doesn’t happen, he said, but “how much we need to cover that shortfall and where it will come from it still being worked out.”

FEMA officials note that they’ve been in an “emergency needs posture” in previous years, and they stressed the current situation will not affect individual assistance for disaster survivors who suffered losses from Irene. The White House’s request last week for additional funding “will ensure that we can continue to support the immediate needs of disaster survivors for previous and ongoing disasters, as well as support our state partners as they respond to current and future events,” said Rachel Racusen, FEMA’s director of public affairs.

But Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who chairs the Senate spending committee that oversees homeland security funding, said that repeated shortfalls in FEMA’s disaster fund has created a backlog in the agency’s response to previous events.

“Since 2001, FEMA has had to stop critical disaster recovery projects six times due to lack of funding,” she said in a statement on Friday. “That means the rebuilding of schools, hospitals, roads and public utilities that our communities rely on are needlessly delayed.”

Because of the current funding crunch, FEMA hasn’t approved any new applications for disaster aid stemming from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, along with floods in the Midwest, a staffer for Landrieu added. The problem is now compounded by Hurricane Irene, and the hurricane season isn’t over.

That’s fueling concerns that the agency’s disaster aid fund could run dry before the end of the fiscal year. Indeed, FEMA has burned through more than $300 million in just the last two weeks. “The balance in the Disaster Relief Fund is now below $484 million, which means the fund could run out before the end of this month,” Landrieu noted in her statement, calling for “swift action” on the White House request.

Even before Irene hit, the issue of disaster aid had become contentious. Earlier this summer, after FEMA announced it was shifting into its “immediate needs posture,” House Republicans blasted the Obama Administration for “purposefully” underfunding the Disaster Relief Fund.

“Time and again, the Administration has ignored the obvious funding needs” for disaster aid, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said in an Aug. 27 statement. “Now the Administration has let the fund reach critically low levels, putting continued recovery at risk, without a plan for the future or a clear method for new disasters.”

But previous Administrations have similarly asked for less funding than needed–and previous Congresses have happily gone along. Then when a hurricane, tornado, or other disaster hits, lawmakers rush to make up the difference with an “emergency” supplemental bill that’s exempt from regular budget caps.

With Congress now grappling with its $1.5 trillion debt-reduction mandate, however, this disaster aid bill could face a stormier path. The issue of disaster funding became a partisan flashpoint earlier this month when Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said any increase in disaster aid needed to be balanced by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.

Cantor has since backed off that statement, saying House GOP leaders would not block aid to disaster-struck states, including his home state of Virginia, which was recently hit by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. Still, Cantor said Congress needs to act “responsibly” in its funding decisions. And Republican House staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the House Appropriations Committee would likely look for offsets to cover at least some the new disaster funding, although not the entire price tag.

Members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation said there should be no fight over funding disaster aid.

“The debate over whether we can find the money to help disaster survivors respond is nonsense,” said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who has otherwise taken a hard line on the need to slash federal spending.

“Once the President declared Connecticut a disaster area, our residents had the right to the assistance for which they are eligible,” said Lieberman, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Government Oversight Committee. “Just as we said during the debt ceiling debate, America doesn’t default on its debts and we don’t default on our obligations to people who have been hurt by Irene here in Connecticut or anywhere else.”

In addition to the questions of how to pay for a bigger bill, House GOP appropriators have also signaled that they want to pass the new aid as part of a short-term spending bill for 2012 or through the regular appropriations process for homeland security, not as an emergency measure.

But the short-term spending bill hasn’t been written yet. And Jentleson, Reid’s spokesman, said tying it to the broader homeland security appropriations bill could slow down the process because that legislation includes funding for a wide range of federal programs, not just FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund.

“There’s a lot of other things in there that could hold it up, and we want to make sure we get this money through as soon as possible,” Jentleson said.

On Monday, Jentleson said there was still no agreement on when or how to move the disaster aid bill. But Lieberman said he was optimistic the disaster bill would not get tied up.

“I have faith my colleagues will come together across party lines, as we have done in the past, to replenish FEMA’s disaster relief fund, which was designed to provide money in exactly this kind of emergency,” he said.