Hurricane Irene Puts Spotlight on Partisan Battles Over FEMA Emergency Funding

House Majority Whip Eric Cantor says funds should be offset by spending cuts.

Aug. 31, 2011 -- The natural disaster streak of 2011 seems to be giving the apocalypse a run for its money and has left the U.S. government in need of even more. Devastating flooding in the Mississippi River Valley, deadly tornadoes in Missouri and an enormous hurricane on the East Coast have wrung all the spare change from a cash-strapped Federal Emergency Management Agency still reeling from Hurricane Katrina.

But emergency supplemental appropriations that have traditionally passed quickly through Congress after past natural disasters are going to be a tougher sell this year. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, said Monday that any additional disaster funding must be offset by spending cuts, which could throw emergency funds into the fire of partisan budget battles.

"In instances like this, yes, there is a federal role; yes, we are going to find the money. We're just going to need to make sure that there are savings elsewhere to continue to do so," Cantor said on Fox News.

The White House responded to Cantor's calls for balancing emergency spending with budget cuts, saying that it is "premature to make a determination yet about what kind of costs could be incurred at the federal level" because they are still in the process of assessing the level of damages.

However, Carney added, "I can't help but say that I wish that commitment to looking for offsets had been held by the House Majority Leader and others, say, during the previous administration when they ran up unprecedented bills and never paid for them."

Even before Irene's fury soaked the East Coast, FEMA's disaster relief fund was sitting at just $792 million, forcing the agency to prioritize its relief efforts as it does every time the fund drops below $1 billion. Because of this "immediate-needs status," FEMA's long-term projects such as rebuilding schools, roads, bridges and libraries have been put on hold to deal with the needs of Hurricane Irene's victims.

The agency has slipped into immediate-needs status in five of the past eight years, but received emergency appropriations from Congress in four of those five years. In fact, between 2005 and 2007 Congress appropriated almost $95 billion in supplemental disaster funding for Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, according to a Congressional Budget Office report.

"Congress knows that this is historically the way disaster relief funding has been handled," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said. "The appropriators have been kept informed on a regular basis about the status of the [disaster relief fund]."

Napolitano echoed the White House today, warning that Congress should be focused on helping storm victims and not trap relief money in political gridlock.

"That should not be the first concern of Congress, and I don't think it is. I think the first concern of Congress is, What do we need to protect the safety and security of the people that we are all privileged to represent?" Napolitano said at a roundtable with journalists hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

Cantor, who represents the Virginia district where the East Coast earthquake originated last week, said the House has already made disaster relief a priority by passing a bill in June that gives FEMA an additional $1 billion for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The bill also increases the agency's funding for fiscal year 2012 by $700 million more than was appropriated for fiscal year 2011.

"The president's got to get involved here too. That's just as plain and simple as it is. People need help out there and there's an appropriate role for the federal government to address that," Cantor said. But, he noted, "those monies are not unlimited and what we've always said is, we've offset that which has already been funded."

The House bill makes up for the $1 billion FEMA appropriation by parsing down grants for clean-energy vehicles, a move the Democrat-controlled Senate does not support. The Senate is expected to take up a supplemental funding bill of its own after Congress returns from its August recess.

"Telling an area hard hit by the economy that it will have to sacrifice to pay for earthquake assistance to Cantor's district simply won't fly," one Democratic aide said, according to The Hill. Aides said they want emergencies like Irene treated "off budget" so emergency appropriations are not taken from funds already appropriated to other agencies in the yearly budget.

GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul this week reiterated his stance that FEMA funding should not be appropriated "off budget," it should be eliminated altogether.

"It's a system of bureaucratic central economic planning, which is a policy that is deeply flawed," Paul said on Fox News Sunday.

Earlier in the week he told NBC News that the agency should be cut because "there is no magic about FEMA.""All they do is come in and tell you what to do," Paul said. "They hinder the local people and they hinder volunteers from going in."

President Obama, on the other hand, has made it clear that help from the federal government is integral to making sure hurricane victims get "all the support they need."

"As I've told governors and mayors from across the affected area, if they need something, I want to know about it. We're going to make sure that we respond as quickly and effectively as possible," he said at the White House on Monday. "And we're going to keep it up as long as hurricane season continues."

But unless the president can squeeze an emergency funding authorization out of Congress, FEMA's disaster fund may run dry long before the East Coast's flood waters recede.

ABC News' Mary Bruce contributed to this report.