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In Irene’s wake, relief aid rises to political forefront

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2011

RICHMOND Hurricane Irene is long gone from Virginia, but the political backlash is just beginning.

The arguments have centered on federal disaster-relief money and reignited the Capitol Hill budget debates, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor among the first to voice his opinion.

Mr. Cantor, Virginia Republican, said Monday the funds should be offset with spending cuts, which drew a strong reaction from Democrats.

However, he later said "the monies will be there," dismissing the backlash as political nonsense.

"There is a federal priority in response to federal disaster relief, no one is questioning that," Mr. Cantor told reporters.

The House earlier this year passed legislation that allocated money for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Relief Fund, but the Senate has yet to vote.

Right now, the fund has $792 million, causing concern about FEMA running out of money or reshuffling what little remains as states from North Carolina to Vermont assess the damage from Irene.

"Recovery from hurricane damage on the East Coast must not come at the expense of Missouri's rebuilding efforts," said Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt, regarding the May 22 tornado that essentially leveled the city of Joplin, killing 159 people and costing more than $2 billion in insurance damage.

"If FEMA can't fulfill its promise to our state because we have other disasters, that's unacceptable, and we need to take a serious look at how our disaster response policies are funded and implemented."

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell says estimates on damage to his state are still being collected but that it would total "millions and millions" of dollars.

However, Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, said he was not concerned about the state qualifying for federal aid or whether the money would be available.

He plans to decide by next week whether to apply for the money.

"Congress will do whatever it needs to do" to help in this "incredibly widespread event," Mr. McDonnell said.

The fight over Irene has also spilled into the U.S. Senate race in Virginia.

Democratic candidate Tim Kaine, a former Virginia governor and Richmond mayor, on Wednesday decried Republican leaders on Capitol Hill for their purported unwillingness to compromise on providing emergency relief, linking it to the GOP's negotiating tactics during the debt ceiling debate.

"Two natural disasters - a hurricane and an earthquake - hit Virginia in the past week," Mr. Kaine wrote in an email. "But instead of coming together to provide relief for those who need it, congressional leaders are holding emergency victims hostage in order to pursue a narrow ideological agenda.

"Eric Cantor and other members of Congress said they would only approve disaster relief assistance if they could force through more spending cuts in Washington. This is the same kind of inappropriate negotiating tactics that nearly caused America to default on its financial obligations" in early August.

"Gov. Kaine understands the need for budget cuts - he cut more from Virginia's budget than any governor," Kaine spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine said. "But he believes we should never look at hard-hit families and communities after a disaster and tell them that relief funds depend on budget negotiations in Washington."

The campaign of Virginia GOP Senate candidate George Allen, also a former Virginia governor and Mr. Kaine's likely opponent, said the government should live within its means while also responding effectively and efficiently to such disasters.

"George Allen believes that one of the responsibilities of the state and federal government is to provide emergency aid and relief during a natural disaster like the recent earthquake and hurricane," said Allen campaign spokesman Bill Riggs. "Washington spending has exploded in the last three years, and it needs to be reined in. Of course, there is wasteful spending that should be cut and re-prioritized for those affected by the storm."

Stephen J. Farnsworth, a George Mason University communications professor, said such positioning has become typical in this politically divided country.

"Every Republican and every Democrat will take advantage of every issue to gain traction [for] their side," he said. "Natural disasters, as well as health care disasters, encourage people to think more about government, and that's the message that Democrats are trying to promote in the wake of the hurricane.

"Voters tend to be operational liberals and theoretical conservatives. Small government is a great idea until you're expecting something from the government."

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