WASHINGTON — The White House told Congress on Thursday that there is a need for more than $5 billion in additional disaster relief money, not even counting the billions that probably will be called for to help East Coast states hit by Hurricane Irene.
The administration also said that under the terms of last month's budget deal, Congress can provide more than $11 billion in disaster aid next year without finding offsetting budget cuts as demanded by some Republicans. The budget pact contains a little-noticed provision providing the flexibility in disaster spending.
Many lawmakers were unaware of the disaster aid provision when voting for the budget pact last month. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has said additional disaster funding should be paid for by cutting spending elsewhere in the budget.
Before Thursday, the Obama administration had requested just $1.8 billion for the government's main disaster relief accounting, generating complaints from lawmakers that billions more is needed to help states rebuild from past disasters like hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav and the massive Tennessee floods of last spring, as well as for Joplin, Mo., and the Alabama towns devastated by tornadoes last spring.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has less than $800 million in its disaster relief fund to pay for the immediate help needed by victims of the flooding and wind damage from Irene through the end of September. The aid account is so low that new rebuilding projects have been put on hold to help victims of Irene and future disasters.
That means that longer-term rebuilding projects such as schools and sewer systems have been frozen out to make sure there's money to provide disaster victims with immediate help with food, water and shelter.
The White House said it's monitoring the situation to determine if money will be needed before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, but it is not requesting any at this time.
"There is no question, however, that additional funds will be required to assist the thousands of Americans affected by Hurricane Irene, on top of the $5.2 billion identified under current law to properly fund known disaster needs for fiscal year 2012," White House budget director Jacob Lew said in a letter sent to top lawmakers Thursday evening.
There seems to be little hope, however, that the FEMA funding bill — and the money to replenish disaster accounts — will be enacted by the Oct. 1 deadline. A battle over whether to require offsetting spending cuts, despite the $11.5 billion in new funding permitted under the budget pact, may take a while to resolve.
The shortfalls in FEMA's disaster aid account have been obvious to lawmakers on Capitol Hill for months — and privately acknowledged to them by FEMA — but the White House has opted against asking for more money, riling many lawmakers. Much of their frustration has been directed at the White House budget office, which alone has the authority to make official budget requests to Congress.
Over the past decade, Congress has appropriated $131 billion in disaster relief, with $37 billion provided for 2005 in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The cost of disasters has been growing in recent years.
The additional disaster relief sought by the White House could bring 2012 spending on agency budget accounts above current year spending. The fact that last month's budget deal imposed caps on spending, which would cut $7 billion from current levels, was a main factor in selling the measure to conservatives.