Congress returned on Tuesday to take up emergency disaster-relief spending, a day after Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew released an estimate of new federal money needed to respond to damage from Hurricane Irene.
Lew's figure of $1.5 billion, which would come on top of the $5.2 billion hike he recommended last week for overall disaster spending, did little to curb pressure from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., for President Obama to send over his own disaster-relief spending proposal.
After working closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Homeland Security Department, Lew wrote, "our preliminary assessment is that we will need roughly $1.5 billion in additional disaster relief funding through fiscal 2012 to help families and communities affected by this hurricane. This roughly $1.5 billion estimate would help cover the uninsured losses families and communities have suffered -- those damages that are not already covered by private insurance."
Lew added that additional funds might be needed as relief work continues over the next several weeks. "While FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund is the pot of money that pays out individual disaster assistance benefits for survivors, and helps support states' long-term rebuilding of public infrastructure," he wrote, "other federal agencies, like the Small Business Administration, also provide their own separate funds to help families and businesses get back on their feet."
Lew argued that "this commitment to our neighbors in a time of need is one that crosses all boundaries of geography and political persuasion."
Cantor press secretary Laena Fallon told Government Executive on Tuesday that House Republicans still are waiting for an official disaster relief spending request from the White House that goes beyond Lew's memo.
"There are people facing really difficult situations as they work to recover from Hurricane Irene and other natural disasters, and our top focus is getting them the money they need should the president request it, as is his duty," she said in an e-mail. "It's not an issue for one party or the other, it's the responsibility of Congress to come together to support disaster assistance if and when the president asks for it, and it's also our responsibility to do so in a way that best serves all taxpayers and families."
Meanwhile, the idea Cantor floated last week that spending on relief from Irene should be offset with other spending cuts drew support on Tuesday from the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
"Many economists believe we'll need some well-targeted recovery measures to keep the economy afloat, and I expect the president will propose significant new spending and tax cuts this week," Maya MacGuineas, the group's president, said in a statement. "But markets aren't going to react too kindly to legislation that makes the debt situation even worse than it already is. That's why we should pay for job measures today with gradual spending cuts or revenue increases phased in over the next five to 10 years."