WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans controlling the House began advancing a $1 billion aid package on Tuesday to make sure that disaster relief accounts don't run dry after massive flooding along the Mississippi River and devastating tornadoes in Missouri and Alabama.
The House Appropriations Committee approved the disaster aid cash along with two spending bills, one funding the Homeland Security Department and the other veterans programs.
The debate over disaster relief highlighted the challenge facing Republicans, who have made clear they intend to cut billions in federal spending yet are under pressure to respond to the extraordinary wave of disasters that has hit the South and Midwest this spring. Republicans vow that additional disaster aid must be funded by cuts to other programs.
At the same time, GOP leaders are demanding trillions of dollars in longer-term spending cuts as the price of raising the government's so-called debt limit so that it can continue to borrow to meet its obligations — and avoid a market-rattling, first-ever default on U.S. bonds. Vice President Joe Biden came to the Capitol for another negotiating round with lawmakers.
Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., said the additional disaster aid money would make sure that there's enough emergency money for victims of tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., and Alabama and for those suffering from flooding in the Mississippi Basin. Also targeted for the aid: ongoing rebuilding efforts for past disasters like hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav and the massive Tennessee floods of last spring.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees disaster relief efforts, has plenty of disaster recovery money for immediate needs like food, debris cleanup and temporary shelter. But Aderholt said that this summer FEMA may have to delay grants to cities and counties for rebuilding public infrastructure like schools and sewer systems.
Such infrastructure grants were withheld for six months last year until the backlog was addressed with a $5.1 billion supplemental appropriation. The government is rapidly burning through a $1 billion infusion of disaster relief money approved last month, and a longer-term shortfall of $3 billion or more remains.
"Under the best-case scenario, the disaster relief fund will essentially run dry before the end of the year. That means sometime in mid- to late summer, FEMA will have to freeze its recovery operations and only fund what they call 'immediate need,'" Aderholt said. "That means recovery, rebuilding and general assistance will stop ... I cannot allow that to happen."
But the underlying homeland security measure won't become law until September at the earliest, which means that the disaster aid money may have to advance on its own.
House Appropriations panel spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said that there are no plans yet to advance the disaster aid measure as a separate emergency measure. That might be an option, she said, if the underlying homeland security measure is delayed.
The Obama administration has come under criticism from lawmakers in both parties for being slow to react to the ongoing shortfalls in disaster aid accounts.
"We are monitoring the situation closely and will consider a supplemental request if the need arises," said White House budget office spokeswoman Meg Reilly.
The disaster aid package would be financed by a $1.5 billion cut from a loan program to encourage the production of fuel efficient vehicles. That means the new spending wouldn't add to out-of-control budget deficits.
The generosity toward disaster victims contrasts with cuts to food aid for the poor and for homeland security grants to local fire departments as Republicans' kicked off a new round of spending bills in their drive to shrink government spending and deficits.
The initial bills are generous to programs like veterans health care and front-line homeland security efforts like the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard, but Democrats warn that crippling cuts to programs like college aid, housing subsidies and health research will soon follow in subsequent legislation.
House Appropriations Republicans on Tuesday gave initial subcommittee approval to food and farm legislation cutting $832 million, or 12 percent, from this year's budget for the federal nutrition program that provides food for low-income pregnant women, mothers and children. The measure includes a cut of $457 million, or 31 percent, from an international food assistance program that provides emergency aid and agricultural development dollars to poor countries.
GOP leaders announced they would stage a vote in the House next week on legislation to raise the debt limit without requiring spending cuts, a measure certain to fail. The White House and many congressional Democrats have called for such a "clean" debt limit vote, but they acknowledge that it will have to be packaged with major spending cuts to have any hope of passing.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has said Congress must raise the $14.3 trillion limit by Aug. 2.