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Louisiana Flood Relief May Not Require Extra Federal Spending

President Barack Obama makes a highly anticipated visit to flood-ravaged Louisiana on Tuesday with the federal government already busy repairing damage to a large swath of the state and drawing down disaster relief funds.

It appears unlikely that the flood recovery will require additional emergency spending by Congress to address the needs of victims, federal officials say.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency official expressed confidence in a statement that sufficient dollars are in place. “Congress has appropriated the necessary funding to address disasters for this fiscal year. FEMA has enough funding to address response and recovery support to Louisiana,” said Rafael Lemaitre, the agency's director of public affairs.

Still, the devastation from the second major disaster declared in the state this year raises questions about how quickly and efficiently state and federal government officials will be able to respond. At least 60,733 homes have been damaged by floods this month, according to preliminary estimates provided by affected parishes to the Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness. According to most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 41 percent of the state’s residents live in parishes affected by the August floods.

Following this month’s rains, 20 parishes — analogous to counties in other states — were declared federal disaster areas. That comes after floods in March resulted in a federal disaster declaration for 36 of the state’s 64 parishes. Most of the overlap from the two events was in a southeastern portion of the state. Nearly the entire state has experienced some major flooding, FEMA maps show.

More than 106,000 Louisianians have registered for FEMA assistance, and more than $55 million in disaster relief funding has been approved to date for the August floods. Additionally, more than 25,000 flood insurance policyholders have submitted claims related to the event.

There’s still a significant store of funds to tap for recovery efforts. FEMA as of Friday said it still had $3.4 billion in its Disaster Relief Fund for fiscal 2016. The agency had a carryover balance of $5.3 billion in the fund from fiscal 2015. In addition, Congress appropriated nearly $7.4 billion for fiscal 2016 to the fund. That meant FEMA began fiscal 2016 with roughly $12 billion in the fund.

Ralph Abraham, R-La., whose 5th District was heavily affected, said he’s willing to fight for more money if there’s a need. But damage assessments aren’t finished, making it difficult to estimate whether additional funds will be in order.

“I am going to look to the local and state leaders as well as federal budget officials for guidance on flood recovery funds. If they tell me we need more money, I’m prepared to fight for it to get our people what they need,” Abraham said in a statement Friday.

“People in nearly every parish I represent have experienced flooding, and for some this is their second flood this year,” he added.

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On Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called the Obama administration's response to devastating flooding in Louisiana "much more effective and much more impactful" than the Bush administration's immediate response to Hurricane Katrina 11 years ago. He said "the most significant difference" was that Louisiana Republicans and Democrats are praising the federal reaction this time.

Should additional disaster relief funds be needed, lawmakers could increase spending without breaking spending caps in the 2015 budget agreement. That’s because FEMA disaster relief spending enjoys special treatment under budget law.

Congress still has room to appropriate more funding to address disasters in fiscal 2016, according to the latest Office of Management and Budget report, released Friday. The limit on such disaster funding for fiscal 2016 is $14.1 billion under caps that were set by the 2011 budget law, meaning nearly $7 billion more could be appropriated.

If more were needed, it could be sought as emergency funding outside the Stafford Act (PL 100-707), which governs how the U.S. responds to disasters. OMB also estimated Congress would be able to appropriate up to $8.6 billion for disaster relief in fiscal 2017. The number is lower because of the high carryover balance that boosted fiscal 2016 funds.

Louisiana lawmakers indicated damage will be significant in an Aug. 14 letter expressing support for Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ request for a federal major disaster declaration, which became effective that day. Storms began Aug. 11, according to the disaster declaration.

The letter, signed by Republican Sens. David Vitter and Bill Cassidy and Reps. Steve Scalise, Charles Boustany Jr., John Fleming, Cedric L. Richmond, Garret Graves and Abraham noted that in some areas flood waters exceeded the 500-year estimate.

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White House Deputy Press Secretary Jen Friedman said on Thursday “FEMA has been on the ground in the region since before the flooding began and continues to mobilize across the state to respond to emergency needs and to assist with recovery, including getting people into temporary housing.” Kurt Pickering, FEMA spokesman, said Monday the agency has done most of the damage assessment in cooperation with state and local officials, though more assessments are underway.

But disaster aid isn’t the only funding stream that will be scrutinized as Louisiana continues cleanup. Flood insurance will play a major role and could become a hot topic with lawmakers in Washington as homeowners look for help. The latest authorization for the National Flood Insurance Program was tacked on to the 2012 surface transportation bill and expires September 30, 2017.

The state has already tried to smooth potential issues with flood insurance by putting emergency measures in place Friday to give policyholders more time to comply with their policy provisions. And on Monday, FEMA announced it would extend the grace period to 120 days for homeowners to renew certain flood insurance policies who are in the 20 parishes declared disaster areas following this month’s floods.

It’s possible Louisiana’s water woes could place a spotlight on efforts to overhaul the flood program, which has been on the Government Accountability Office’s “High Risk List” since 2006. The program currently owes $23 billion to the U.S. Treasury, according to a June report. The GAO stated in a 2015 report that current losses generated by the program as well as the potential for future losses “have created substantial financial exposure for the federal government.”

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But many people affected aren’t covered by the flood insurance program because they did not apply for coverage. Only homes in designated high-risk areas must have flood insurance to qualify for federally-regulated mortgages.

Former Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., welcomed FEMA's assessment that there is enough funding in the disaster relief account. But she expressed concern about residents who don’t have flood insurance whose homes were devastated. More moisture is forecast to barrel through the state this week.

“We do have to hope that there’s not another major catastrophe that hits and that we can be effective and efficient in the way we spend the money,” Landrieu said.

John T. Bennett and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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The political action committee started by former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords endorsed Republican Sens. Pat Toomey and Mark Kirk in their re-election efforts.Americans for Responsible Solutions, which supports candidates who support gun control, endorsed Toomey, who is running for re-election in Pennsylvania, over Democrat Katie McGinty. Toomey worked with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on legislation improving background checks.

The endorsement comes as Toomey also received the support from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's group Independence USA. That group released an ad which featured the daughter of the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School, who was killed in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.

Kirk is in a tough re-election fight against Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth in Illinois. Giffords' op-ed praised both senators for supporting the background check legislation.

She also wrote how difficult some of the endorsements were.

"With so many more candidates running on a gun violence prevention platform, in some places the changing politics of gun safety has made our endorsement decision difficult," she wrote. "In Pennsylvania, Katie McGinty is a passionate advocate for gun violence prevention and would be a consistent vote for life-saving gun safety laws in the Senate. Likewise, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois is not only a decorated veteran and an American hero, but has been a champion for commonsense gun laws in the House. We have no doubt she would continue to be a leader on gun safety in the Senate."

Giffords became an advocate for gun control after she was shot in 2011, which ultimately led to her resignation from Congress. In her op-ed for CNN with her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, Giffords also praised Toomey's Democratic opponent Katie McGinty and Duckworth.

"With so many more candidates running on a gun violence prevention platform, in some places the changing politics of gun safety has made our endorsement decision difficult," the op-ed said.

Kirk released a statement after the announcement thanking the organization.

"The only way to break through the partisan gridlock in D.C. is by working across the aisle to reach bipartisan solutions," he said. "And I remain committed to working with Republicans and Democrats alike to get the job done and end the cycle of gun violence."

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Despite Spending Feud, NIH Makes Do in Fight Against Zika

Development of a vaccine to combat the Zika virus is on track for at least the next three or four months, despite the bitter congressional standoff over funding a response.

But the scientist in charge of the effort said Wednesday the money is likely to dry up in December. Funding for vaccine research at the National Institutes of Health was part of a much broader $1.9 billion request from the Obama administration that's been the subject of much wrangling this year on Capitol Hill.

"We asked for $277 million, and if you do the math and you look at all the money that was reshuffled in different places, when you pay it back, we still need $196 million to go through 2017 and into 2018," Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview.

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Fauci's team has relied on reprogrammed dollars shuffled between government accounts, including last week's reallocation of some $34 million within the NIH by Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell. Fauci said Burwell wanted to avoid the transfers because they will eat into research of conditions such as heart disease and cancer.

"We have to spend that money by the end of September," Fauci said. "We are going to be funding things that we're going to be doing starting in January and February. So, when you get to October, November, December, we're not going to be spending any additional money because we already put it into the contracts and the things to start."

[HHS to Transfer Funds to Help Fight Zika Virus]

He predicted the possibility of a funding drop-off unless Congress agrees on stopgap measures to keep federal agencies running.

"If we get a continuing resolution, we can still do what we're doing until like maybe December, and then, all of a sudden, we start to get into real trouble," Fauci said. "So, when we get to calendar year 2017, and we essentially run out of the money that we had forward funded into the areas to keep the vaccine going, we're going to be back in trouble again."

A stopgap appropriations measure that runs past Election Day would give Burwell some new spending to move around on October 1.

"The thought of that gives me a chill. It does," Fauci said when asked about further shifts. "I can tell you that would have so many negative effects — not only negative effects on the actual conduct of research in cancer and heart disease and diabetes. It would be very demoralizing to the biomedical research community to see that."

Fauci told Roll Call that a large-scale Zika outbreak such as those seen in Brazil and Puerto Rico is "extremely unlikely" in the continental United States, though not impossible. He warned against complacency, given that there's an expectation of additional localized outbreaks, particularly along the Gulf Coast.

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Fauci said he understood public confusion about the severity of the threat. Zika presents "relatively mild" symptoms, except in pregnant women, whose babies are vulnerable to microcephaly, a severe birth defect in which the newborn can have an abnormally small head.

"That dichotomy of a mild illness on the one hand with potentially devastating consequences on another creates a bit of confusion about how serious is that and what should we be doing about it," Fauci said. "When we start seeing the devastation of even a handful or so of babies born with microcephaly or who have congenital abnormalities, that is going to have as profound an influence on 'Did we do the right thing?' as a less severe infection that has broad dissemination, like influenza."

Fauci seemed aware it could take only a small number of cases to generate even greater media and public attention for Zika, in contrast with a condition like the flu.

"People don't get excited about influenza except when there's the threat of a pandemic," he said.

The lengthy debate over funding to combat Zika devolved into a standoff where Senate Democrats blocked a GOP proposal that would deny family planning assistance from going to groups like Planned Parenthood. In places like Florida, the fight is spilling over onto the campaign trail.

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But Fauci said being on the pivot point of the summer's biggest funding fight doesn't make him feel like a politician.

"There's a lot of back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans about how much should be funded, what the mechanism of the funding [should be]. I don't get involved in that and have never gotten involved in that because I have to maintain, as I do, my credibility as a scientist," he said. "The decision about how that's going to come about, you leave it up to things that are well beyond any control I can have. I can only give the scientific information as I know it."

Contact Lesniewski at NielsLesniewski@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter @nielslesniewski.

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