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Hurricane Sandy: The brewing spending fight in Congress
Disaster relief has become a sensitive topic on Capitol Hill, with Republicans demanding that aid be offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget
 
People walk past debris on Oct. 30 where a 2,000-foot section of the Atlantic City, N.J., boardwalk was destroyed by flooding from Hurricane Sandy.
People walk past debris on Oct. 30 where a 2,000-foot section of the Atlantic City, N.J., boardwalk was destroyed by flooding from Hurricane Sandy.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The bipartisan spirit prevailing over the government's response to Hurricane Sandy — which was later downgraded to a superstorm — was best summed up by Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who praised President Obama for his "outstanding" outreach. Still, Christie noted it would take days to fully assess the damage wrought by the storm, while New York Governor Andrew Cuomo similarly warned that "this is going to be a long-term recovery and reconstruction effort." It's the fallout from Sandy that could have Democrats and Republicans at each other's throats again. After all, the two sides in recent years have fought bitterly over funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says Meghan McCarthy at The National Journal:

Approving additional federal money for disaster recovery used to be relatively routine for Congress, but in the past two years FEMA funds have gotten caught up in larger fights over federal spending and the deficit. Conservatives, particularly tea party members in the House, resisted giving a "blank check" to FEMA.

At the moment, FEMA has at least $8.1 billion in funds to last through the end of the year, enough to fund disaster relief efforts for the time being. But economists already estimate that the economic toll could reach anywhere between $10 billion and $50 billion, putting pressure on the government to cough up some more cash. Combine that with a lame-duck session that will focus on the "fiscal cliff" and you have problems, says John Stanton at BuzzFeed:

With the nation facing yet another fiscal crisis at the end of the calendar year — and conservatives expected to retrench along strict spending cut lines after the election — the process of finding money could turn into a political battle...

Aides acknowledged the damage is so severe and widespread, that money is not likely to be enough and at some point more money will need to be appropriated.

This is why Sandy may turn into an election-year issue. Romney claims that he supports federal aid for disasters, but it's a source of money that could easily dry up under a Romney administration, says Jonathan Chait at New York:

Funding for FEMA is something the parties wrangle over, with Republicans pushing to limit the agency's budget, and Democrats pushing back. FEMA has to fight for its share of a constricted pot of money for domestic non-entitlement spending, a pot of money that the Republicans propose to radically constrict. How radically? Romney's budget promises require shrinking domestic non-entitlement spending as a share of the economy by about two-thirds.

Conservative commentators, of course, see it differently, and are accusing the media of politicizing the disaster. Romney really wants to make FEMA and other federal agencies more efficient, says Conn Carroll at The Washington Examiner:

What [Romney] did say is that we should ask ourselves what FEMA should and shouldn't be doing, and then only pay for what's needed.

So for example, FEMA should operate the National Response Coordination Center. But FEMA should stop wasting money on ineffective grants to local fire departments. This is common-sense, good government decision making. But Obama and his allies want to score political points instead.

 

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