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Senate Democrats seek $6 billion in disaster aid

With federal disaster aid about to run out, the Democratic-led Senate will seek to advance a $6-billion package for victims of Hurricane Irene and other recent disasters, despite GOP opposition to providing emergency assistance unless it is paid for with spending cuts elsewhere.

The Senate action would replenish depleted accounts at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has begun prioritizing aid. But the move escalates a confrontation with House Republicans, whose leaders have resisted allocating more money for emergency aid without comparable offsets elsewhere in the budget. The Senate could vote within days.

“Our people are suffering,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “We need to get this relief funding to the American people as quickly as we can.”

Republican Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, would not say Wednesday whether he could support the Senate measure, which offers almost twice as much disaster funding as a House-passed bill.

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“I am not for holding up any money,” said Cantor, reiterating that he raced home from a visit to the Middle East after a rare magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck his central Virginia district last month. “I just think we can act responsibly.”

Disaster aid, which typically enjoys bipartisan support, has run up against the kind of conservative-driven belt-tightening that has dominated other heated budget debates this year.

Republicans in the GOP-led House, particularly freshmen and “tea party"-affiliated lawmakers, are resistant to adding to the nation’s record deficits, even in the case of emergencies. Cantor’s office has pointed to the nation’s $14.3-trillion debt load as reason for austerity.

But FEMA has been left short of funds by back-to-back disasters that have touched states across the nation. Floods and tornadoes pummeled Midwestern states this year and led to severe damage in Missouri. Last month, Hurricane Irene raced up the East Coast, bringing heavy flooding in New Jersey and Vermont.

FEMA has prioritized its remaining funds, providing immediate aid for food, shelter and debris removal but postponing expenditures on longer-term rebuilding projects.

Democratic Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont, among the states hit hard by the recent hurricane, is convening a bipartisan group of lawmakers Thursday to meet with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate. Welch hopes to form a coalition to ensure states get funding despite the partisan standoff.

The White House has indicated it will seek about $5 billion in disaster aid for the 2012 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. It initially sought $1.8 billion.

The House approved $2.6 billion in disaster aid in June, along with a supplemental $1 billion for fiscal 2011, and paid for the assistance with spending cuts elsewhere that are opposed by Democrats. The House cut Homeland Security grants for firefighters, as well as money for an alternative-fuel vehicle program.

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Senate Democrats’ $6-billion package does not include any matching spending cuts.

Under the budget accord struck this summer in negotiations to increase the nation’s debt ceiling, Congress agreed to allow up to $11.3 billion in emergency disaster funds — a figure calculated as an average of past emergency needs and a level of assistance that is unlikely to find support in the GOP-led House.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com


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