Less than 24 hours after a powerful tornado ravaged the city of Moore, Oklahoma, President Obama vowed that survivors ”would have all the resources that they need at their disposal.”
But the president’s power is limited if Congress isn’t willing to fund federal relief for Oklahomans–and for the fiscal hawks of the Republican party, that’s creating a tense debate over how disaster relief funding should be structured.
Oklahoma’s own Senator Tom Coburn sparked the conversation on Tuesday morning by insisting that any aid for his home state tornado victims should come with comparable spending offsets (not necessarily cuts that would affect Oklahoma). “He’ll ask his colleagues to help Oklahoma by setting priorities and sacrificing less vital areas of the budget,” his spokesman said in a statement.
But in an odd twist, Coburn appears to be in the minority in his insistence on offsets.
Most other Republicans have said they don’t need offsets. A number of Republican senators, from Missouri’s Roy Blunt to Arizona’s John McCain, told reporters they won’t require offsets to vote for aid to help tornado victims in Moore.
But few of these senators were singing the same tune when New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut residents asked for financial assistance to help rebuild from the impact of superstorm Sandy. Two of the 36 votes against the major Sandy relief bill came from Oklahoma’s Senators Coburn and Inhofe.
That has some prominent Northeast Republicans fired up. Congressman Peter King of New York, who fought passionately for aid for his home state after the storm, lashed out at Inhofe and Coburn, calling them hypocrites on Wednesday.
“We know the type of suffering that people go through during these types of crises and we’re not going to hold–I’m certainly not going to hold the good people of Oklahoma hostage because they may have some hypocrites in their delegation,” King told WCBS 880′s Steve Scott on Wednesday.
He also opposes offsets, saying “political games” should come later.
New Jersey Chris Christie, who also chastised his fellow Republicans for opposing Sandy recovery aid, supports sending aid to Oklahoma, insisting now is “not a time for political retribution” against Oklahomans. Christie urged his colleagues in Washington to provide” swift and immediate” aid to Moore on Wednesday.
Moore’s congressman, Rep. Tom Cole, was one of the relatively small group of House Republicans who supported the Sandy aid package. He told Today’s Matt Lauer that while he applauded his colleagues for being “prudent” and supporting offsets for Sandy aid, he did not see that offsets should be a deal breaker. ”Once that didn’t make it, you want to continue and go ahead and help the people that need the help.”
Senator Jim Inhofe insisted his no vote against the Sandy aid was because of how the aid was distributed. He has promised that any Oklahoma relief bill would be “totally different” from Sandy aid, which he says was a “slush fund.”
With most Republicans opposing offsets, and Coburn supporting them (and Inhofe refusing to say how he feels on the issue), the Senate could end up with an awkward vote in which Coburn would have to either flip flop on the issue or vote against his state’s own relief bill.
The good news for residents of Moore is that it’s possible they won’t be at the mercy of Congress. The FEMA disaster relief fund currently has a balance of more than $11 billion dollars. At this point, the Moore tornado will not likely exceed that amount or even come close to it. The Joplin, Mo., tornado–which essentially wiped out that town two years ago–cost the federal government less than a billion in recovery funding.