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August 29, 2011 10:05 AM Will House Republicans block post-Irene aid?

By Steve Benen

For as long as anyone can remember, federal disaster aid has effectively been automatic. It didn’t matter which party controlled which branch; when communities faced emergency conditions after a natural disaster, Washington would act to offer some relief.

Congressional Republicans in 2011 no longer believe in such swift action — — if Democrats want emergency assistance in the wake of a natural disaster, Republicans will insist on attaching some strings to the relief funds. In this case, the strings are cuts elsewhere in the budget.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) made the GOP approach clear months ago, and as Hurricane Irene approached the Atlantic coast, Republican leaders didn’t back off the callous line. Now that the storm has swept through eight states, will GOP lawmakers follow through on their threat and block disaster aid unless their demands are met? Brian Beutler takes a closer look at the “big problem” and says there are three angles to keep an eye on.

First, Republicans have learned an obvious lesson since they retook the House — that they can control the agenda in Washington, and put popular government programs under attack, if and only if they have some leverage over Democrats to play along. The government shutdown fight in April was their first victory. The debt limit showdown was their piece de resistance.

Second, there are political pitfalls to this approach, particularly when it requires Republicans to publicly stake out specific positions. Cutting government spending might focus group well, but privatizing Medicare does not, as Republicans learned quite painfully earlier this year. This augurs for slashing spending in nebulous ways — capping discretionary spending, and spreading the cuts out across myriad federal programs; or promising to “find monies” in the budget to offset new expenses. Death by a thousand, invisible cuts.

Third, the right flank of the Republican Party expects no less. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated southern Louisiana, Cantor’s predecessor, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) claimed Republicans had pared discretionary spending back enough that federal aid could be financed with new debt. He came under attack from members of his own party and quickly reversed himself. Looks like Cantor learned his lesson.

All of this makes a lot of sense, especially the part about leverage. Republicans won’t be too crass publicly, but when it comes to post-hurricane relief, GOP officials will effectively tell Democrats, “We might be willing to help communities ravaged by the storm; we might not. What’s it worth to you?”

But I’d add a fourth angle to watch: whether rank-and-file Republicans are prepared to follow through on this. Over the weekend, Rep. Leonard Lance (R) of New Jersey said Cantor’s approach is the wrong way to go, and he does not expect Congress to hold disaster aid until his party receives a ransom. In May, after Cantor first pushed his ridiculous approach, other Republicans also said the spending-cut demands were wrong.

With Congress’ approval rating in the toilet and the Republicans’ support gradually reaching new depths, how far will the congressional GOP pursue this? Are Republicans seriously prepared to block post-hurricane relief to satisfy some kind of philosophical agenda?

I guess we’ll find out soon enough, but I’m not sure if the answer is obvious. Even the most callous, heartless bastard on Capitol Hill occasionally worries about re-election. Even if Republicans couldn’t care less about damaged communities, whether they’re prepared to face political blowback is less clear.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • TT on August 29, 2011 10:12 AM:

    Maybe somebody in the media should ask Cantor why he hates his country so much.

  • bigtuna on August 29, 2011 10:12 AM:

    You are getting sucked into the politicization of disaster relief:

    Instead of :

    +Congressional Republicans in 2011 no longer believe in such swift action if Democrats want emergency assistance in the wake of a natural disaster, Republicans will insist on attaching some strings to the relief funds. In this case, the strings are cuts elsewhere in the budget."

    it should read:

    Congressional Republicans in 2011 no longer believe in such swift action if millions of Americans need emergency and long-term storm related assistance that cannot be provided by local and state governments, bake sales, and other assorted Republican fantasies in the wake of a natural disaster, Republicans will insist on attaching some strings to the relief funds. In this case, the strings are cuts elsewhere in the budget.

  • c u n d gulag on August 29, 2011 10:17 AM:

    They'll have a hard time being decent.

    In their hearts, they believe you can't give something to someone HERE without f*cking over somebody THERE!

  • Gummo on August 29, 2011 10:18 AM:

    All weekend long wingnut pundits & politicians were decrying FEMA as socialist and saying we should go back to 1900 when thousands would die in a natural disaster but it was okay because someone would bring a fresh batch of cookies to a neighbor.

    Now this morning we learn that that fresh batch of cookies is socialist too.* So I guess we should all just huddle down in our separate caves, clubs at the ready and deny millions of years of evolution as social animals, because it doesn't fit some psychopath's unholy philosophical shotgun wedding of Ayn Rand and Roid Rage Jesus?

    (*Media Matters: In an August 27 post to his blog Gateway Pundit, conservative blogger Jim Hoft criticized President Obama's recent call for Americans "to honor the victims of 9/11 and to reaffirm the strength of our nation with acts of service and charity." Hoft wrote that Obama wants "to desecrate the memory of 9-11 and turn it into a socialist day of community service." )

  • Anonymous on August 29, 2011 10:25 AM:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/federal-eye/post/fema-moving-money-around-to-pay-for-hurricane-irene/2011/08/28/gIQAWwmhkJ_blog.html

    "the Federal Emergency Management Agency is temporarily suspending payments to rebuild roads, schools and other structures destroyed during spring tornadoes in Joplin, Mo. and southern states in order to pay for damage caused by Hurricane Irene."

  • SteveT on August 29, 2011 10:25 AM:

    The question is: Is Obama going to continue pursuing the chimera of "bipartisanship". Or his he finally going to fight for what is best for the American people?

    Instead of letting House Democrats draft relief legislation, which the Republican majority can prevent from ever seeing the light of day (and prevent from advancing enough for the media to pay attention), Obama needs to make a national address announcing that he is sending a relief bill to Congress. His announcement needs to list specifics, without getting sidetracked with wonkish details, and include offsets which will be painful to Republicans to pay for it.

    Obama has two choices -- he can play the Republicans game of letting them hold relief hostage and watching them complain to the media that it is Obama's intransigence that is blocking relief. Or, Obama can go over the heads of the Republicans and their media allies and put the Republicans on the spot.

  • DAY on August 29, 2011 10:30 AM:

    The president is going to Talk To Us, at 11:AM.
    I'll probably watch. Or go, as the song says, play solitaire with a deck of fifty one. . .

  • JM917 on August 29, 2011 10:36 AM:

    I suspect that Cantor's line is going to play quite positively among Red State Repugs. They will think thus: OK, pay disaster assistance to Virginia and North Carolina, which (they will assume) suffered the most material damage from Irene and the Virginia earthquake. Such help is the god-given right of patriotic, Christian southerners, and especially those who choose to (and can afford) to maintain expensive second homes in places like the Outer Banks. And take the money out of those welfare queens and Medicare/Medicaid cheats in the librul states up north, which in any case got off easy (so they they think) from over-hyped Irene.

    I live in Virginia, one congressional district to the west of Cantor's. There are plenty of patriotic Christians here--the ones who listen to Rush, belong to megachurches, and regularly vote Republican--who will think Cantor's got it exactly right. And I'll bet that you'll find the same pattern in the kind of Midwestern districts that vote in lopsided proportions for the Boehners and the Bachmanns.

    Cantor's line is going to reinforce growing sectional tensions, however. I doubt that it's going to help the GOP above the Potomac.

    Captcha: tick-borne eesidu. Yep, it (like Teapartyism) is running rampant in our deer-invested rural woods.

  • zandru on August 29, 2011 10:38 AM:

    Gummo summarizes the Republican Point of View perfectly:

    "So I guess we should all just huddle down in our separate caves, clubs at the ready and deny millions of years of evolution as social animals, because it doesn't fit some psychopath's unholy philosophical shotgun wedding of Ayn Rand and Roid Rage Jesus? "

    I had assumed that the GOP way-back machine was pointed at the 19th century, 18th, 17th ... and might top out in the Dark Ages. It's becoming clear, however, that they're trying to drive the US back to the pre-human era. Well, maybe even before there was multi-cellular life - a remarkable number of species are social, and have derived great benefits therefrom. Ants and humans have been high on the list of species whose success comes from tightly integrated social structures.

    I predict the ants will continue to survive.

  • Rick Massimo on August 29, 2011 10:42 AM:

    I think it's very brave of Cantor to tell Halliburton that they were just gonna have to wait for their next multibillion-dollar check because there were some hurting non-corporate Americans who were, frankly, just more important right now.

    Um, that IS what he was saying, right?

  • Zorro on August 29, 2011 10:51 AM:

    GOP mindset: the states that got whacked the most by Irene were largely blue, so fuck 'em.

    -Z

  • flyonthewall on August 29, 2011 10:51 AM:

    Presidential disaster declarations since 2000. Notice red states have more disasters and thus probably receive more fed money than blue states.

    http://gis.fema.gov/maps/historical.pdf

  • FRP on August 29, 2011 10:54 AM:

    When we agree to what kind of fight we are going to have , knife , gun , etc , will it be believable that the party that drew up the need to define the quarrel escalates the terms after an agreement , if it suits their desire .
    It may be better to try to follow the thinking that the unbending nature of playing with a cheater is neither enhanced or made more tolerable by understanding that .
    The claims for decency must be understood in its simplest forms .
    I receive money from ESSO EXXON R.J. Reynolds , and this is why I think , global warming climate change , and cancer , are our dear friends to the end .
    My pay masters at Koch , Mellon , Scaife have not unduly influenced me when I say that trickle down economics has been the wildest kind of success .
    Because I work for corporate possession of public airwaves , has this only made it easier , or more understandable , for my claim of Fox News proudly standing alone in what it promotes as a more digestible , incisive , and singular perspective ? Isn't this a better broadcast and mix of news when it isn't all mixed up with a socialist filter ?
    The mileage may vary , the mileage may stay the same , but the propaganda from the wealthy as a weapon against the less wealthy never ends .
    Amen

  • Gov't Mule on August 29, 2011 10:55 AM:

    If Cantor and the Republicans either block or try to hold hostage FEMA aid, it will cost them their majority. Why? Because Irene was such a massive storm that it impacted every state along the Eastern Seaboard from NC to Maine and also VT. Not coincidently, the GOP made significant gains in 2010 in NC, VA, MD, PA, NJ, NY, and NH. If they have a tantrum and oppose aid to their own constituents, guess who the voters will take it out on?

  • flyonthewall on August 29, 2011 10:56 AM:

    More maps going back to 1964.

    http://www.fema.gov/hazard/map/index.shtm

  • Cabot on August 29, 2011 11:02 AM:

    Perhaps the question should be asked to Cantor, "which specific Federal dollars allocated to your District do you want to use to pay for disaster relief?"
    He should be asked to make a zero sum decision specifically for his Congressional District.
    He'd like to cut Head Start in Chicago to pay for relief in Virginia. Make him answer which cuts he's prepared to make specific to Richmond.

  • CDW on August 29, 2011 11:04 AM:

    "�We might be willing to help communities ravaged by the storm; we might not. What�s it worth to you?�"

    What possible reason could the Democrats have to bargain with the cons about this? All the Dems have to do, if they're smart, is sit tight and watch while they're making videos of the con clowns.

  • Josef K on August 29, 2011 11:04 AM:

    Even if Republicans couldnt care less about damaged communities, whether theyre prepared to face political blowback is less clear.

    The ones who don't fear such 'blowback' are the ones that worry me the most. True believers like this, the ones willing and ready to actually go all the way with the debt ceiling (I'd count Rep. Bachmann among them), don't strike me the sort willing to blink on this one.

    And if they prove to have no sense of self-preseration (at least politically)...well, revolutions have started for less.

  • Prup (aka Jim Benton) on August 29, 2011 11:25 AM:

    As usual, you underestimate Republicans. Hal Rogers of KY, head of the Appropriations Committee, is already blaming the shortfall in FEMA funds on the Administration's budget cutting, even though it was his committee that made the cuts and he boasted of them when they were made. Sarah Burris at C&L has the story.

    Of curse, WE know netter, as we continue to tell each other. What we don't do is to go out and tell other people, or even to see how Republican taurine excrement is playing in the states. We used to, in the Carpetbagger days, but now we spend too much time reading pundits -- not you, Steve, you are indispensable -- who spend there days trying to 'broadcast play-by-play from the Goodyear blimp.' They get the trends right, and totally miss the subtleties of the individual plays.

  • Okie on August 29, 2011 11:53 AM:

    Didn't Cantor's home state of Virginia get hit pretty hard by Irene?

    Let's watch to see if he opposes aid to Virginia. I know that the citizens of Virginia will be watching.

  • SecularAnimist on August 29, 2011 11:56 AM:

    Steve Benen wrote: "Are Republicans seriously prepared to block post-hurricane relief to satisfy some kind of philosophical agenda?"

    It's not a philosophical agenda.

    It's a profit agenda: "disaster capitalism".

    Them that's got, got out of town
    And them that ain't, got left to drown
    Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?
    -- Bruce Springsteen

  • ComradeAnon on August 29, 2011 1:38 PM:

    Steve-you've got to admit that the President has done a pretty good job of teaching the republicans to ask "What is it worth to you?"

  • Just a guy on August 29, 2011 4:41 PM:

    Obama should authorize funding through FEMA for each Congressional district separately, contingent upon the Representative's acceptance of the funding. If they don't want the money, they don't have to take it. But then they can explain it to their constituents.

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