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Christie Contradicting Cantor Shows Tension on Disaster Funding

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie broke with his party’s fiscal conservatives, saying his state’s cleanup from the deadly storm can’t wait while lawmakers battle over the budget. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s call for budget cuts to pay for Hurricane Irene’s damage didn’t sit well with another prominent Republican.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie broke with his party’s fiscal conservatives, saying his state’s cleanup from the deadly storm can’t wait while lawmakers fight over budget offsets.

Christie lashed out at Cantor’s remarks after touring flood-stricken communities this week. His impatience exposed a rift between a Republican governor who must respond to urgent needs of residents and the hard-line stance on budget discipline taken by members of his party in Washington.

“He’s a governor and he has to deliver the goods,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “If Christie said to the people of New Jersey, ‘Sorry guys, but we’re looking for an offset somewhere else in the budget, and you’re just going to have to wait until Congress gets back,’ that would be grounds for impeachment.”

In New Jersey, where there are seven confirmed Irene-related deaths, 45,600 residences were still without power as of yesterday, according to Mary Goepfert, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Management. In all, 10,209 people remained blocked from their homes, and 568 were staying in shelters as the state cleans up from widespread flooding.

No Time to Wait

“We don’t have time to wait for folks in Congress to figure out how they want to offset this stuff with other budget cuts,” Christie, 48, a first-term governor, told reporters at a news conference on Aug. 30.

“I would urge all my colleagues in the New Jersey delegation, no matter which party you’re in -- and all the rest of the folks in Congress -- that nobody was asking about offsetting budget cuts in Joplin,” Christie said, referring to the Missouri tornado that killed more than 150 people in May.

“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,” he said.

President Barack Obama is scheduled tomorrow to tour Paterson, one of New Jersey’s poorest cities and the scene of some of the worst flooding. Obama signed disaster declarations for several states, including New Jersey, to make federal resources available. Christie said yesterday he’ll join the president in Paterson.

“These storms are not Republican or Democratic storms and we don’t have a Republican or Democratic president -- we have one president at the time,” Christie said on the boardwalk in Point Pleasant Beach on the New Jersey shore. “And I will be there on behalf of the people of New Jersey to welcome the president.”

New Jersey Losses

New Jersey’s insured losses due to Irene are estimated at $751.4 million, and total economic losses at $2.1 billion, according to Kinetic Analysis Corp., a Silver Spring, Maryland-based disaster-cost forecaster.

Cantor, a Virginia Republican, has stepped back from comments he made in an Aug. 29 interview on Fox television.

“As I’ve said continuously, we will find the monies for disaster relief,” Cantor said in an Aug. 31 message on Twitter.

“No one is talking about holding funding hostage or blocking it,” Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Cantor, said in an interview. “We should always make the effort to try to pay for it.”

In 2004, Cantor helped his state get about $20 million in federal disaster relief after a tropical storm struck. He voted against an amendment to offset the disaster aid with budget cuts elsewhere.

‘Probably a Mistake’

Cantor “would be the first to tell you that looking back, that was probably a mistake” to vote against the offsets, Dayspring said.

The nation’s debt was less than $8 trillion at the time and now stands at $14.6 trillion. Republicans regained control of the House last year “promising to be stewards of the taxpayer’s dollar,” Dayspring said.

Cantor agrees with Christie that people struggling need disaster relief quickly and that those funds can be offset later, Dayspring said.

Cantor, 48, is pressing 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 to offset the increase.

Commuter Rail Tunnel

The federal response to Irene drew praise for Obama and the U.S. government from Christie, who in the past cast doubt on the president’s leadership and also rejected billions of federal dollars for a commuter rail tunnel.

“We’re coordinating well with the federal government,” Christie said in an Aug. 28 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” The federal emergency staffers were “working incredibly hard at providing things to us that we need,” he said.

By contrast, in October he canceled construction on a commuter rail tunnel to New York City from New Jersey, a project that had been championed by the state’s two Democratic U.S. senators and whose cost estimate had ballooned to $14 billion from $8.7 billion.

New Jersey taxpayers couldn’t afford the state’s share of the project, Christie said.

Christie toured Paterson on Aug. 31 alongside Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary and former Democratic governor of Arizona.

‘Dealt With Crises’

“She’s dealt with crises as a governor,” Christie told reporters. “That’s why it’s so great to have someone like her in this position. I commend the president for choosing her.”

The split over the urgency of budget offsets shows the difference between governors seeing firsthand the value of government services and lawmakers in Washington debating the details of spending matters, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.

“It’s one thing to sit in Washington and say we need offsets and can’t spend more, and it’s something very different to be seeing people’s homes flooded and power out and the kind of desperation people feel in times of crisis,” he said.

For Cantor, his timing wasn’t so great, said John Feehery, a Republican strategist in Washington.

“It’s better to have that debate when the nerves aren’t so raw,” he said.

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