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Battle in Congress threatens to delay renewal of disaster aid

A political battle between the tea party-driven House and the Democratic-controlled Senate is threatening to slow money to the government's main disaster aid account, which is so low that new rebuilding projects have been put on hold to help victims of Hurricane Irene and future disasters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has less than $800 million in its disaster coffers. A debate over whether to cut spending elsewhere in the federal budget to pay for tornado and hurricane aid seems likely to delay legislation to provide the billions of dollars needed to replenish FEMA's disaster aid in the upcoming budget year.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the House will require offsetting spending cuts. Key Senate Democrats said they will oppose the idea of offsetting cuts when a bill funding FEMA arrives there.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, said Tuesday the number and cost of disasters have grown dramatically over the past few years and that it's unrealistic to require offsetting spending cuts. "If (Cantor) believes that we can nip and tuck at the rest of the federal budget and somehow take care of disasters, he's totally out of touch with reality," Durbin said.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, which is still rebuilding six years after Hurricane Katrina, said she will take advantage of a little-noticed provision in the recently passed debt limit and budget deal that permits Congress to pass several billion dollars in additional FEMA disaster aid without budget cuts elsewhere. The provision would allow at least $6 billion in disaster aid to be added to the budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

Landrieu, who heads the Senate committee responsible for FEMA's budget, and she is pushing back hard against the GOP demand that increases in disaster relief be paid for with cuts elsewhere in the budget.

The House FEMA funding measure, passed in early June, provides $1 billion in immediate disaster funding paid for by cuts to a loan program backed by the Obama administration to encourage the production of fuel-efficient vehicles. It also taps into Obama priorities like first responder grants to add $850 million to the administration's $1.8 billion disaster aid request for 2012.

"We should address emergency aid in the way we traditionally have in the past -- without political strings attached," Landrieu said. Her version of the legislation will provide a significant increase in disaster aid funding without offsetting spending cuts as permitted under the just-passed budget deal, she said.

Landrieu isn't getting a lot of help from the White House. Its February request for disaster funding next year is insufficient to fund pending demands from past disasters like hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav and the massive Tennessee floods of last spring. It also threatens to slow rebuilding efforts in Joplin, Mo., and the Alabama towns devastated by tornadoes last spring.

The shortfalls in FEMA's disaster aid account have been obvious to lawmakers on Capitol Hill for months, but the White House has opted against asking for more money, riling many lawmakers.

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