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A new disaster sparks an old debate on federal aid

The Oklahoma tornadoes that killed at least 24 people Monday have restarted the debate in Washington over emergency spending and whether it should be offset by cuts elsewhere in the  federal budget. 

It’s an ongoing battle for dollars that most recently flared in the wake of Hurricane Sandy last fall and resulted in a highly public and angry spat between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his fellow Republicans in Congress (including both senators from Oklahoma), who opposed some of the funding in the Sandy disaster-aid bill. 

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama declared a disaster in Oklahoma, making people in five counties eligible for federal aid such as temporary housing and low-cost loans to pay for uninsured property damage. He pledged federal support for “as long as it takes.”

President Obama delivered a statement on the Oklahoma tornado tragedy that killed dozens in Moore, telling residents that "their country will remain on the ground there for them, beside them as long as it takes."

Some of the aid will flow from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund, but it is not yet clear whether Congress will decide that an emergency spending bill is needed to refill that fund's account. 

At a press briefing Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner repeatedly said, "We'll work with the administration on making sure that they have the resources they need to help the people of Oklahoma." He sidestepped reporters' questions on whether spending cuts would be made to offset an emergency spending bill and why House Republicans from Oklahoma had voted against funding after Hurricane Sandy.

Within hours of the town of Moore, Okla., being slammed by the tornado Monday, some Twitter commentators were criticizing Oklahoma Sens. Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe, both Republicans, for voting last January against a $50.5 billion bill to provide funding for Northeastern states hit by Sandy in October.

Coburn was on his way to Oklahoma on Tuesday but his spokesman John Hart said, “We don't know if an emergency aid package will even be necessary. We do know that FEMA has $11.6 billion in its Disaster Relief Fund as of this morning. We don't know if that will be enough.”

He added that “officials won't be able to do a detailed damage assessment until rescue and recovery operations are complete. We don't know when that will occur.”

And Hart noted that “If an additional emergency aid package is necessary Dr. Coburn will not change his longstanding position on offsets. Since the Oklahoma City bombing, Dr. Coburn has argued that supplemental bills should be paid for by reducing spending on less vital priorities.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. told reporters Tuesday, “The problem I had, and others may have had, with (the) Sandy (emergency spending

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin joins Morning Joe to discuss Monday's devastating, Category 4 tornado, the rescue and recovery phase currently happening in Moore, speaking with President Obama and the challenges the city is facing as it fights to recover.

bill) was that it was, ‘OK, here’s a number. We think it’ll probably be that much.’ Nobody should be flying over Moore, Okla., today in a helicopter and coming back here and saying ‘We flew over and we think it’s going to cost X billion dollars and let’s just appropriate that amount of money.’ Nothing says this has to be done all at once and the best way to respond to these (catastrophic events) is to always be responding to what you know to be the need, rather than what you think the need might be.”

Blunt said that after the 2011 Joplin tornado in his state, Congress sent disaster aid in “about four different appropriations processes, one of which was just the normal appropriations bill with some targeted CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) money…. but it was in the regular appropriations bill under the (spending) limit.”

Last January, Coburn voted for, and Inhofe against, an amendment to the Sandy bill offered last January by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, that would have offset the new Sandy outlays by reducing discretionary spending (including defense) by 0.5 percent over the next nine years. The Senate defeated Lee’s amendment, 62 to 35.

And last December, Coburn joined Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in criticizing the Senate’s original $60.4 billion version of the Sandy relief bill for its inclusion of unrelated funds such as $150 million for restoration of fisheries in Alaska, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., joins Morning Joe to discuss Monday's tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, a tornado that devastated Oklahoma in 1999, and a tornado that took place on Sunday in Shawnee, Oklahoma that is reported to have killed two people.

Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. and other Colorado members proposed adding $125 million for watershed protection and flood mitigation projects, including about $20 million for areas in Colorado burned by last summer’s wildfires.

Their argument was that the emergency spending bill should not be limited to areas hit by Sandy. And in the past emergency spending bills designed to deal with one disaster have tended to become vehicles for a variety of other disaster outlays and other spending.

Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005. But after the original Katrina emergency spending bill in 2005, Congress subsequently passed more Katrina funding in a bills in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010 – all as part of other disaster-relief legislation which addressed events from Midwest flooding to California wildfires.

Coburn and McCain said last December, “As Congress considers the $60.4 billion Hurricane Sandy supplemental spending bill this week, it is critical that we ensure taxpayer dollars go to help those impacted by this devastating storm and not to wasteful spending projects.”

The quarrel over the added funding for projects unrelated to Sandy helped to delay the emergency spending bill – leading to Christie denouncing Boehner for not allowing a vote on the bill on New Year’s Eve.

Ultimately both the House and the Senate did pass an emergency spending bill – but only after many condemnations of House Republicans by Democrats and by some Northern Republicans who said emergency funds should not be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Even though most annual spending which doesn’t go to entitlement programs such as Medicaid is subject to the discretionary spending limits, or sequester, in the Budget Control Act, that law does allow for adjustments in the spending caps in certain cases including when Congress considers emergency spending.

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