House Republicans Torn Over Paying For Storm Aid Package

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans are increasingly divided over whether to pay for a massive emergency aid package for those hit by the storms pummeling the Midwest -- an intra-party scuffle that comes at a time of a near-obsessive focus on cutting spending on Capitol Hill.

GOP leaders are signaling they will push to come up with offsets to pay for such a package, which could cost billions of dollars and has been proposed in response to a week of tornadoes and floods that have decimated areas of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. The federal government typically foots the bill when it comes to responding to natural disasters, but Republicans in charge of the House say they plan to keep their message of fiscal discipline in line with their actions.

"There's not a question that there are going to be offsets if there is a request for a supplemental," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told The Huffington Post.

Cantor said it is important that people "reach out in their hearts for the people who suffer," and emphasized that he believes the federal government should play a role in responding to natural disasters. But at the same time, he said, "We can find things we don't need to spend on to pay for it."

"I also think there's trillions of dollars of spending in Washington," Cantor added. "So it's about priorities."

Republicans have already identified potential offsets, Cantor said, referencing a draft Homeland Security bill that the Appropriations Committee approving on Tuesday that includes $1 billion for disaster relief. But their proposal -- drawing funds from unused money in an Energy Department advanced car technology program -- has only a slim chance of advancing beyond the House, given the program's priority ranking among Democrats and the White House. Critics also argue that $1 billion won't be nearly enough in aid to help disaster-stricken states.

And until it becomes clear if or when President Barack Obama will submit a supplemental request to Congress -- the first step in advancing emergency spending -- Republicans are left squabbling over which to prioritize as a party: ideology or necessity.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) repeatedly declined to comment on whether he endorsed Cantor's view on the need for offsets. He told The Huffington Post that, in principle, he doesn't answer reporters' questions when walking down halls.

"It doesn't matter if [the question] is easy or hard," Boehner said, adding jokingly. "It leads to bad behavior."

Republicans who control the purse-strings in Congress, meanwhile, were all over the board on the issue.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), a member of the Appropriations Committee, showed The Huffington Post photos of her district under 12 feet of water as a result of flooding from the storms. She said an emergency aid package shouldn't need to be paid for with spending cuts but said she has "no doubt" that some of her colleagues on the committee will push for offsets. She guessed that none of them will come from disaster-prone areas.

"It makes me sad" that some Republicans are insisting on offsets for natural disaster of this scale, Emerson said. And in the case of Cantor, "I was disappointed. I need to take him to my district."

Still, she said she is hopeful that some committee Republicans will side with her in not pushing for offsets, particularly some of the newer members who hail from districts hurt by the storms. People have a change of heart on spending "all of a sudden when it becomes personal," she said. "My own constituents would be horrified if I didn't do everything I could" to get aid.

Democratic lawmakers from districts hit by the storms say it is bad form for Republicans to even be talking about the need to pay for an emergency package of this nature.

"Where is his heart?" Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) said of Cantor. "Where is his compassion for people who are suffering today?"

"If they want to fight and quibble over the supplemental, I mean, they are heartless. What's wrong with them?" Clay said. "Nothing for the average American community. That's what they're saying: we don't have anything for the average American community."

Some GOP appropriators demurred when asked for their views. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) repeatedly said he would need to see the supplemental before deciding if it needed to be paid for. Yet Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), also on the Appropriations Committee, said he had no problem supporting a supplemental without offsets.

"If you can find offsets, great. If you can't, you can't," he said. "That's what an emergency is, by definition."

The timing of a potential package remains up in the air; Obama has been on a weeklong, four-nation European tour and returns Saturday. He announced Tuesday, two days after the tornadoes first ripped through the Midwest, that he plans to visit a devastated region of Missouri on Sunday.

"I myself will travel to Missouri to talk with folks who've been affected, to talk to local officials about our response effort and hopefully to pray with folks and give them whatever assurance and comfort I can that the entire country is going to be behind them," the president said in London.

An administration official said disaster relief officials are still assessing the scope of damage to determine if and how much may be needed in emergency funding.

"We're monitoring the situation closely and will consider a supplemental request if the need arises," said the official.