- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2005

When hurricanes Mitch and Georges struck Central America in 1998, killing about 10,000, leaving almost 3 million homeless and causing more than $5 billion in damage, the United States responded with $621 million in recovery and reconstruction aid.

The country was running a $125.6 billion budget surplus when Congress approved the spending in 1999.

Today the United States’$348 billion budget deficit may crimp long-term relief aid for Asian countries devastated by theDec. 26 tsunami.

“It has to be a factor. I don’t think anybody can just say we have a blank checkbook,” said Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees foreign operations.

“But I do think the United States has always been generous. When it comes to these kinds of catastrophes, there is really little precedent in modern history for a disaster of this scope. So I think the United States will respond,” Mr. Kolbe said before leaving on a trip that is scheduled to include a stopover in Aceh, an Indonesian province battered by the tsunami.

The United States is the world’s biggest overall aid donor, spending more than $16 billion a year on development assistance. President Bush last week said the country spent $2.4 billion in the past year on food, cash and humanitarian relief related to disasters.

The Bush administration has pledged $350 million in relief for tsunami victims, and immediate military costs — such as airlifts — are expected to add at least $100 million to outlays. The official assistance is coupled with millions in private and corporate donations.

The administration and Congress expect to set aside an even larger sum in the coming weeks. Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Tuesday predicted the U.S. aid figure would rise “considerably.”

A formal administration appropriations request could reach Capitol Hill in February.

The disaster has killed more than 139,000 people in a dozen countries, injured another 500,000 and left up to 5 million lacking basic services, the United Nations said.

It still may not be entirely clear what resources will be needed in the coming months, whether the United States will try to match or exceed the biggest donors, or how much Congress will say the country can afford in addition to the money it already spends.

The $350 million targeted at emergency tsunami aid is a tiny part of the U.S. budget, and small compared with other expenses. It equals $1.19 per American citizen, 2.5 percent of the emergency aid allocated last year after four hurricanes hit Florida — a $13.9 billion package that included $100 million in foreign assistance — 7 percent of the $5 billion the Defense Department says it spends each month in Iraq, and 0.014 percent of all federal outlays for 2005.

“In a lot of ways the United States is in a Catch-22 situation. No matter how much we pledge, some will say the United States should pledge more,” said Brett D. Schaefer, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

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