WASHINGTON — A top Republican said Wednesday that the GOP-controlled House will act quickly on any disaster aid request by President Barack Obama and that help for victims of Hurricane Irene and earlier disasters doesn't necessarily have to be paid for with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. The Democratic leader of the Senate said the chamber will soon vote on billions of dollars in disaster aid.
The comments by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid came amid increasing concern that the government's main disaster aid account is running dangerously low and could run dry before the Sept. 30 end of the budget year. On Tuesday, White House budget director Jacob Lew informed lawmakers that the administration will soon up its request for disaster aid for next year to $6.6 billion and is considering asking for even more money via emergency funding legislation to make sure the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster account doesn't run out this month.
The welter of disaster-related activity also included action by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday to approve $6 billion for FEMA's disaster fund and another $1 billion for Army Corps of Engineers projects in the wake of massive flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
Reid, D-Nev., said the Senate would act on a hurried-up disaster aid measure as early as next week. He gave no further details other than to say it would be a stand-alone disaster aid measure that would be lifted from the bigger homeland security spending measure approved by the Appropriations Committee.
Cantor, after saying last month that disaster aid "will be offset with appropriate savings or cost-cutting elsewhere," seemed to take a softer tack on Wednesday.
"I appreciate Leader Reid's concern for the people of my district and those facing these terrible disasters across the country, and hope we can work quickly and responsibly to provide any funding needed immediately, as well as to navigate through the appropriations process for the coming year," Cantor said in a statement.
At issue are both immediate needs for 2011 and a larger request by the White House to provide disaster relief and rebuilding money for the upcoming 2012 budget year. This spring, the House approved legislation to provide $1 billion in 2011 disaster relief, paid for by cutting from a loan program to encourage the production of fuel efficient vehicles. It's now sounding like House GOP leaders may not insist on the so-called offset, but lawmakers are just returning to the Capitol and haven't had a chance to discuss the idea with their members.
Also on Wednesday, Cantor didn't blanch at the bipartisan Senate proposal to provide $6 billion for disaster accounts next year, even though it would be added to a $1.043 trillion "cap" on agency budgets called for in last month's new budget law. Cantor reminded reporters that the budget deal provided for a new approach to budgeting for disasters that would permit the budget to be adjusted upward for disaster relief — provided it wasn't by more than historical averages.
The White House says the budget deal permits more than $11 billion in additional disaster spending over the budget cap for next year. That figure covers numerous disaster programs overseen by agencies other than FEMA, which funds both immediate needs like food and shelter and longer-term rebuilding projects.
Cantor, whose district and state were slammed last month by a rare earthquake and Hurricane Irene, says disaster aid only would have to be paid for if lawmakers hadn't adequately budgeted for it previously and had instead tapped disaster accounts to pay for other programs. He said that in past years lawmakers had routinely and purposefully underfunded disaster aid accounts to make room in the budget for other spending — and forced adoption of emergency, deficit-financed spending bills to make up for the shortfall.
"When we are talking about offsets, that only has to do with this ad hoc sort of spending that has taken place in the past, which is what we tried to correct," Cantor said. "Because what had been going on in the past is instead of fully funding the emergency disaster relief accounts, we didn't do that and then diverted the money elsewhere."
Cantor's softer stand came after several East Coast Republicans parted ways with him in the wake of widespread flooding in their districts.
"Immediate offsets shouldn't be required for disasters like this," said GOP Rep. Richard Hanna, who represents a district in upstate New York.