Democrats are trying to use the issue of disaster relief spending to drive a wedge between House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Republicans from states stricken by last week’s earthquake and hurricane, an effort that the Virginia Republican’s office denounced Thursday.
“It’s not an issue for one party or the other, it’s the responsibility of Congress to come together to support disaster assistance if and when the president asks for it, and it’s also our responsibility to do so in a way that best serves all taxpayers and families,” Cantor Press Secretary Laena Fallon told Roll Call.
On a tour of areas of his district that were damaged in an earthquake on Aug. 23, Cantor said he would look for budget cuts to offset any federal emergency spending, if it is requested. After Hurricane Irene traveled up the East Coast over the weekend, Cantor told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that emergency funds would be available if they are sought, and he pointed to the House-passed Homeland Security appropriations bill, which includes funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency that is offset elsewhere. The Senate has not acted on the bill.
Fallon said Thursday, “I can tell you that obviously no one would stand in the way of urgently needed funding, that’s just silly, and the Majority Leader has repeatedly made that point this week.”
To talk any more specifically would be premature, she added.
“How much would the request be for? What do the governors affected say is needed? When will the request be made?” she asked. “These are all unknowns because the White House has yet to make a request.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has seized on Cantor’s stance on offsets, accusing him of holding aid hostage, and it sent letters to news organizations in the districts of East Coast Republicans on Thursday to pressure them into weighing in.
Will the district’s Representative “stand against his Republican Leader Eric Cantor’s outrageous position that Hurricane Irene disaster relief cannot be funded until after House Republicans make draconian spending cuts to things like Medicare and education?” the letters asked.
Cantor told the Times-Dispatch on Wednesday, before the DCCC attack, that the matter of disaster aid was not a political issue.
“These are disasters that there is a precedent for a federal role,” he said. “I believe there’s an appropriate federal role. And the monies will be there. There’s never been a question about that so again the attempt to try and portray this as some kind of political issue, it’s not. We have a budget issue for sure, we all know that.”
At least one Republican in a district affected by Irene, Rep. Nan Hayworth (N.Y.), said she would vote to withhold disaster aid unless it is offset by budget cuts.
Most other Republicans have been noncommittal on the issue. House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, for instance, said in a statement that it is “too early to determine what the overall costs will be and how they will be paid for.”
“Clearly, however, there will be a large federal response,” the New York lawmaker said.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been the most prominent Republican to take issue with Cantor for bringing up the budget during a time of natural disaster.
“Nobody was asking about offsetting budget cuts in Joplin,” Christie said at a news conference this week, referring to the Missouri town that was hit by a tornado this year. “And I don’t want to hear about the fact that offsetting budget cuts have to come first before New Jersey citizens are taken care of.”
Two New Jersey Republicans have since agreed with their governor.
A spokesman for Rep. Frank LoBiondo, whose district includes Atlantic City, which was hit hard by the hurricane, said in an email that “the congressman agrees with Gov. Christie.”
And Rep. Jon Runyan, who represents a significant portion on New Jersey’s coastline, released a statement Tuesday saying that “now is not the time for a budget debate when so many people and communities are still under water and many without power.”
“While I respect Majority Leader Cantor and share his commitment to spending discipline, my focus right now is making sure hard-hit areas in New Jersey receive the necessary federal resources they need in order to recover,” Runyan added.
Rep. Michael Grimm told Roll Call that protection from disaster lies at the heart of the government’s mission.
“There’s no question that the government should play a much more limited role in our lives than it currently does,” the New York Republican said. “However, protecting life and property are the fundamental responsibilities of government, and providing protection and relief from disaster is a large part of that. I have been touring my district since Hurricane Irene struck and have seen many hard-hit areas that could greatly benefit from federal aid.”