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Budget Cutting Needed to Cover Cost of Irene, Cantor Says

Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, is pressing for budget cuts to cover the cost of cleaning up after Hurricane Irene and other disasters.

Senate Democrats said funding shouldn’t be delayed by political bickering.

Both Republicans and Democrats said more funding is needed to help communities rebuild. The Federal Emergency Management Agency redirected money in a $792 million disaster fund to states hit by Irene from yet-to-be-approved rebuilding projects related to previous natural disasters.

Irene left behind high water in New York, New Jersey and Vermont, which suffered its worst flooding in 75 years. FEMA is helping state and local officials complete damage assessments, aiding in search-and-rescue operations and has sent food and water to areas hit by the storm.

“Those monies” for responding to disasters “are not unlimited,” said House Majority Leader Cantor of Virginia in an Aug. 29 interview on Fox News. “We’ll find other places to save so that we can fund the role the federal government needs to play.”

Earlier this month, Congress averted a federal government default by resolving at the last minute a battle over raising the debt limit that was fueled by growing concern about the widening federal deficit. Cantor pressured President Barack Obama to back bigger cuts in government programs without raising taxes.

FEMA Praised

As lawmakers debate how to pay for disaster relief, FEMA is winning praise. The agency six years ago was widely criticized for its slow response to Hurricane Katrina.

“FEMA, along with its state and local partners, was ready to respond to Hurricane Irene’s damage in Connecticut and across the East Coast, and was proactive in doing so,” Senator Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who’s chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

In response to Irene, FEMA sent more than 200 employees to North Carolina alone and is working closely with local officials, said Ernie Seneca, a spokesman for the state’s emergency operations. FEMA’s effort builds on an ongoing relationship, he said.

“When storms hit, we don’t have to exchange business cards,” Seneca said in an interview.

Tour of Flooding

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack yesterday toured flooded regions of North Carolina and Virginia while FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate traveled to Vermont to assess damage. Napolitano and Fugate are scheduled go to New Jersey and New York today.

In responding to disasters such as Irene, Obama wants to exercise “fiscal discipline,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday in response to Cantor.

“I wish that commitment to looking for offsets held by the House majority leader and others” had been present when Congress increased federal spending during President George W. Bush’s term, Carney said.

The Obama administration still is assessing Irene’s cost and hasn’t decided whether to ask for more money from Congress, Carney also told reporters yesterday.

Cantor pressed for Senate passage of a House spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security, which would provide an additional $1 billion for the Disaster Relief Fund in fiscal 2011, which ends Sept. 30, and $2.65 billion in fiscal 2012. That legislation cuts funding for advanced technology vehicles.

Congress Returns

Senate Democrats said they would seek more disaster-relief money as soon as Congress returns from its August recess on Sept. 6.

“The American people deserve to know that critical assistance won’t be held up by petty political squabbles in Washington,” said Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who heads the Senate appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, in a statement.

Representative Jo Ann Emerson, a House Appropriations Committee member who has urged the Senate to approve the House legislation, said Congress should cover any spending on disaster response by cutting government programs when possible.

“If we’re able to offset” the cost, “I think it’s great,” said Emerson, a Missouri Republican, in an interview. “If we can’t” cut programs to compensate, “the government’s role is to provide for the safety of the public.”

Emerson said the agency is delaying projects aiding her state’s recovery from the tornadoes by shifting its focus from past disasters to help with Irene.

‘Very Angry’

“It makes me very angry because we have thousands of people hurting,” she said.

Delaying projects may make it more difficult for struggling communities to recover, said Mark Merritt, who was FEMA’s deputy chief of staff under former President Bill Clinton.

“It’s going to be up to Congress to do their job and prioritize this to ensure that the money is available to do the repairs that are necessary,” said Merritt, president of Washington-based Witt Associates, in an interview. “Hopefully it doesn’t get bogged down into another political battle.”

Napolitano said FEMA has funds to pay for “all projects that are already under way,” including tornadoes earlier this year. “Long-term projects that have not yet begun” could be affected by any funding shortfall, she said on a conference call with reporters yesterday. If Congress gives the agency supplemental funding, those projects could be covered, she said.

Localities said they are anticipating federal government money for long-term rebuilding.

“If they don’t get the funding in place, it could become an issue for us,” said Robin Edgeworth, who is handling Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s recovery from tornados that devastated the area in April.

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