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Disaster Relief Funding Fractures Republicans

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Sen. Mary Landrieu makes a statement Tuesday during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security markup of the fiscal 2012 Homeland Security appropriations bill.

A handful of Senate GOP appropriators might be setting themselves up for a standoff with House Republicans over whether to pay for disaster funding in the wake of several recent natural disasters that have menaced almost every state.

Republicans on the Senate Appropriations panel voiced no objections to approval of $7 billion in emergency disaster aid Tuesday, and some even defended their decision to allow disaster aid to pass without offsets.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, said that the additional emergency spending was part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling, which allows lawmakers to raise spending caps for disasters.

“We are within the budget cap adopted by the debt ceiling agreement,” Alexander said of the extra $11.5 billion that the debt deal provided for disaster aid. The president has signed disaster declarations for 47 states in recent months.

Despite that budgetary cushion, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) last month called for disaster relief funding to be offset by cuts in other areas of the federal budget. Cantor’s comments came amid the natural disasters that have hit his home state, which suffered damage from Hurricane Irene and a 5.8-magnitude earthquake in August.

Alexander said he understands Cantor’s position. “I think we have to address emergency spending,” Alexander said. “It’s grown and grown and grown as a percent of the budget, and it obviously has been abused in the past. I haven’t made a decision about how best to resolve that.

“But in this case, we are staying within the budget ceiling adopted in early August,” Alexander continued. He declined to speculate whether the House would go along with the Senate position on emergency spending.

Alexander’s comments came after his subcommittee on Tuesday approved more than $1 billion in disaster aid that would not be paid for as part of the Energy and water development appropriations bill. Also on Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security approved a fiscal 2012 spending bill, which included $6 billion in emergency spending for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund. Those funds also would not be paid for with cuts elsewhere.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), chairman of the Homeland Security subpanel, said she hopes House Republicans do go along. She said she plans to discuss the issue with Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), her counterpart on the House Appropriations panel.

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