WASHINGTON — Hurricane Isaac discussions are expected to shift here next week with Congress returning from a prolonged recess and FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund in need of replenishment.
U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said he expects “bipartisan support,” but Democrats remain critical of Republicans, especially in the U.S. House, for continuing to push — prior to Isaac — for requiring budget cuts elsewhere in order to cover extra disaster response funds.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., helped lead the fight last year to provide an ample $7.1 billion for the fund — more than President Barack Obama originally proposed, but ultimately supported — against what she has called the “Cantor doctrine” pushed by U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to require “offsets” elsewhere in the federal budget to cover more disaster relief dollars.
“The good thing is there’s money now to pay that (Isaac) support,” Landrieu said.
U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, took it a step further, arguing that it is “un-American” to focus on finding offsetting cuts “when people are in dire need.”
“We don’t even do that to other countries,” Richmond said, when the U.S. provides foreign aid for disaster.
Vitter said it is a “legitimate suggestion,” though, to want to reduce the deficit and still provide disaster aid. “That discussion shouldn’t, in any way, prevent the people from getting disaster aid,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, accused Democrats of “politicizing” Isaac, especially when U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., criticized GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney last week for visiting Louisiana while backing the budget plan by his running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that would include offsets and cut the disaster fund.
Scalise said the U.S. House at least approved a plan with funding levels for the disaster fund similar to what Obama originally proposed early last year. The Senate has not even approved a budget, he said.
“Shame on them when they haven’t even done their job,” Scalise said of U.S. Senate Democrats. House Republicans simply want to end the “shell game” of finding money after the fact and also focus on reducing the deficit, he said.
As for the actual disaster fund, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has about $1.4 billion left, which is expected to last at least through the end of the month.
Congress is expected to act on additional funding as soon as next week, said U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The other ongoing key debate is the cost-sharing percentages between the federal government and state over Isaac.
Gov. Bobby Jindal, who also repeatedly criticizes Obama’s federal spending, is requesting 100 percent federal coverage of the Isaac expenses.
Obama approved at least 75 percent federal cost sharing before Isaac made landfall, and if the total hurricane response costs exceed $593.8 million then a 90 percent federal share can kick in based on a mathematical formula.
In comparison, the federal government covered 90 percent of the costs after Hurricane Gustav.
“We feel like we’re already there, or have been there,” said Kevin Davis, director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, of the 90 percent threshold. “But it’s about documenting all that.”
With about 1,000 FEMA employees assessing the damage, Davis said he is hopeful the 90 percent approval could come any day. Then the push will come for full 100 percent coverage, he said.
Landrieu thanked Obama for approving the 75 percent emergency coverage even before Isaac hit and said 90 percent would be “very, very helpful.”
“If we can get to 90-10, I would be pleased,” Richmond added. “Of course, not as much as if we got to 100 percent.”
Vitter said the damage certainly warrants at least 90 percent federal support and that 100 percent should be “very possible.”
U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, said he backs the governor’s push for full federal support, especially considering Congress recently axed nearly $600 million in Medicaid funds that were slated for Louisiana.
Scalise, though, was more hesitant to say Louisiana should get 100 percent federal support.
“I want Louisiana to be treated the same as everyone else is treated in previous disasters,” Scalise said. “We still haven’t gotten full damage assessments.”