Oklahoma’s two Republican senators, Tom Coburn and James Inhofe, may be in an awkward position: their tornado-devastated state needs help from the U.S. disaster relief agency whose plea for funds they rejected in 2011.
Coburn and Inhofe voted in September 2011 against a bill to provide $7 billion to help finance the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s relief fund. Coburn unsuccessfully sought to reduce other federal programs to pay for it.
“We have plenty of areas we can cut,” Coburn said at the time. He and Inhofe also voted “no” in January when Congress completed a $60.2 billion aid plan for victims of Hurricane Sandy in the northeastern U.S.
The May 20 tornado cut a swath of devastation 20 miles long that ran through Moore, a city of about 55,000 south of Oklahoma City. Authorities said at least 24 people were killed, and Governor Mary Fallin said entire blocks were wiped out. President Barack Obama called it “one of the most destructive tornadoes in history.”
The day after the storm, Coburn’s spokesman, John Hart, said the senator wanted any new disaster-relief aid for Oklahoma to be covered by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. The stance drew little support from fellow lawmakers.
Coburn addressed his position in an interview today on the “CBS This Morning” program. “Any time we do an emergency supplemental bill we ought to pay for it,” he said, adding that his constituents “don’t want us to charge our everyday living expenses to their kids.”
A similar demand by some House Republicans delayed federal relief for two months after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut on Oct. 29 and killed more than 100 people. Federal disaster aid typically is passed as emergency funding that isn’t offset by reductions in other government spending.
“This is not a time for political retribution,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who criticized fellow Republicans over the delay in providing disaster aid after Hurricane Sandy, said today while urging swift aid for Oklahoma. In times of natural disasters, he told reporters, “Americans stand up for Americans.”
Inhofe told MSNBC yesterday that the Hurricane Sandy aid package was “totally different” than what might have to be provided to Oklahoma residents. The Sandy bill “had things in the Virgin Islands, they were fixing roads there, they were putting roofs on houses in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
“Everybody was getting in and exploiting the tragedy that took place” in the Northeast, Inhofe said. “That won’t happen in Oklahoma.”
Lawmakers said the FEMA funding issue is unlikely to come up soon in Congress because the agency says it has enough money to pay for immediate recovery efforts. The fund’s balance is $11.6 billion, said FEMA spokesman Dan Watson.
“If any money is needed, we are going to take care of it; this is an emergency,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters.
The House Appropriations Committee today voted to add $6.2 billion to the disaster relief fund in the 2014 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. The provision was part of a $38.9 billion spending measure the panel approved to finance the Homeland Security Department next year.
Senator John McCain, a critic of wasteful government spending, said Congress should approve disaster aid without any strings attached if budget offsets aren’t possible.
“I respect Senator Coburn’s view,” said McCain, an Arizona Republican. “It’s laudable and I would support such a thing, but if we can’t, the important thing is to get assistance to these people as soon as possible.”
“I don’t think disasters of this type should be offset” by other budget cuts, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, told reporters. “We have an obligation to help these people.”
The 2011 debate over giving FEMA an additional $7 billion occurred after the showdown in Congress over extending the government’s borrowing authority. Congress eventually approved a lower amount of disaster aid.
Skepticism among Republicans about the Hurricane Sandy aid package led House Speaker John Boehner to cancel a scheduled Jan. 1 vote on it. That led to a chorus of criticism from Democrats and Republicans from the region. Christie called fellow Republicans in Congress “know-nothings” and blamed Boehner for the delay.
Congress passed the first installment of federal aid for Sandy victims on Jan. 4. Coburn, Inhofe and McCain voted against the $60.2 billion package Congress completed on Jan. 28.
Coburn “has had the same position on disaster aid offsets since the Oklahoma City bombing” in 1995, Hart said in the e-mail, referring to the attack on a federal building that killed 168 people.
Coburn “will not change his longstanding position,” Hart said in a later e-mailed statement. He said the senator opposed prior disaster-aid bills because such funding shouldn’t be used to pay for a “wish list of parochial or backlogged priorities that have nothing to do with helping victims.”
Coburn, re-elected to his second term in 2010, has said he won’t run again for the Senate in 2016.
Boehner said yesterday, “We will work with the administration to make sure they have the resources they need to help the people of Oklahoma.”
The speaker, an Ohio Republican, cut off questioning at a news conference when reporters pressed him about any Republican demands to offset new emergency funds with spending cuts.
Fallin, a Republican, said in a press release and a message posted on Twitter that individuals and business owners who need help can call FEMA at 1-800-621-FEMA.
During four years in Congress before becoming governor in 2011, Fallin voted in favor of a 2007 emergency supplemental spending measure that included disaster-relief funds for Gulf Coast areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Three of Oklahoma’s all-Republican five-member House delegation voted against aid for Hurricane Sandy victims at least once in January.
Freshmen Markwayne Mullin and Jim Bridenstine voted on Jan. 4 against temporarily raising the government’s flood-insurance borrowing authority to allow continued payment of property-damage claims by Hurricane Sandy victims. Oklahoma Republicans Tom Cole, Frank Lucas and James Lankford voted for the measure. Moore is in Cole’s district.
On Jan. 15, Lankford joined Bridenstine and Mullin in voting against the $60.2 billion aid package for Sandy victims that was supported by Cole and Lucas.
Representative Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said that while several members of the Oklahoma delegation had voted against aid for Hurricane Sandy, “Tom Cole voted for it and it’s his community” that was struck by yesterday’s tornado.
“I don’t want to spend a lot of time in funding fights here,” Cole said today on “CBS This Morning.” “My objective is to make sure the people get the help they need.”
Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Budget Committee, said in an interview that emergency spending should be approved without offsets “if you can’t do it under your existent budgetary limits.” Still, he said he favored finding budget cuts when approving disaster aid.
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