WASHINGTON - Increasing numbers of House Republicans want to link disaster relief to spending cuts or changes to aid programs, complicating efforts to provide assistance to superstorm Sandy victims.
The issue already has caused a political embarrassment for Republicans, and it takes center stage again next week when the House is scheduled to vote on a second installment of Sandy-related aid.
Congress traditionally has treated disaster assistance as emergency spending that doesn't require offsetting budget savings. Days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, Congress appropriated more than $60 billion in aid with little opposition.
By contrast, House Speaker John Boehner on Jan. 1 blocked House action on Sandy legislation because of unease among his Republican colleagues about the $60 billion price. After protests by New Jersey and New York Republicans whose constituents were among those hit hardest by the Oct. 29 storm, Boehner scheduled a Jan. 4 vote and lawmakers passed a first installment of $9.7 billion in help.
"Emergency bills like this should not come to the floor without offsets to pay for it or structural reforms," Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican and chairman of the Financial Services Committee, said during debate on the measure, which allowed the nation's flood-insurance fund to continue paying claims.
Hensarling's comments and the delay in delivering aid to victims of one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history underscore how deficit-conscious Republicans are taking a stand against spending increases -- including emergency relief. They also foreshadow how Republicans will insist on spending cuts in exchange for an increase in the government's $16.4 trillion debt limit next month.
The votes that Boehner has scheduled for Tuesday would deliver two more installments in Sandy-related aid. One would provide $17 billion for immediate needs, and the other would allocate $33.6 billion for long-range projects that include improvements to buildings, coastlines and subway tunnels to prevent future flooding.
To pass the full package, House Republican leaders will be counting on fellow party members from the Northeast and the Gulf Coast, which has received billions of dollars in emergency aid since Katrina, to join Democrats in supporting the bill.
Still, the leadership has invited amendments, which could give lawmakers the opportunity to seek spending offsets.
Some Republicans may seek long-range changes to funding relief efforts that include privatizing the flood insurance program. Also being discussed is increasing the 25 percent share of disaster-relief costs paid by states.
"We have to have a policy that incentivizes governors and mayors to set aside" more money for emergencies, said Matt Mayer, who oversaw Katrina aid at the Homeland Security Department. He now studies disaster policy at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based pro-Republican advocacy group.