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September 30, 2014

Peter King: Give Oklahoma Tornado Relief Without Offsets

Moderate House Republicans such as Rep. Peter T. King are ready for another intraparty fight over whether emergency disaster aid should be offset, after a tornado ravaged parts of Oklahoma on Monday.

The New York Republican said that if central Oklahoma needs supplemental aid, Congress should grant it immediately without talk of offsetting the spending elsewhere.

“I think they should get every penny they need. I’ve been through this. We can do the political games later on, the important thing is to get them the aid as quickly as they need it and not to make a political issue out of it,” King said Tuesday.

King was one of the most vocal proponents of bringing federal aid to New York after Superstorm Sandy battered the coasts of his state and neighboring New Jersey late last year.

Though the White House said Tuesday that there is enough Federal Emergency Management Agency money to deal with the immediate aftermath of the tornadoes, King said that may not turn out to be the case in the long term.

He noted that the Disaster Relief Fund only helps pay for the immediate recovery, while the state could be in need of long-term financial assistance in what could be a protracted cleanup effort.

“I don’t see how they get by without additional money,” he said. “There should be enough for the FEMA money, but that’s only part of it. … You have to get a supplemental appropriation … that gives the local officials leeway.”

King’s comments came after Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told CQ Roll Call he would stick by his mantra that disaster aid should be offset, despite the damage in his home state.

Others in the delegation may follow Coburn’s lead. Sheryl Kaufman, a spokeswoman for Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., said that supplemental aid is a “moot point” because the FEMA fund has more money than the entire cleanup effort cost when a large tornado hit Oklahoma in 1999. As to the long-term cleanup, she said people have insurance and charities can help fund the efforts, as well.

Other Republicans who have in the past insisted that aid be offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget remained mum on Tuesday, as the scope of the destruction, and the federal assistance needed, was not yet known.

Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Scott Garrett, R-N.J., both said they would wait to see what becomes necessary.

“I think it’s a little too early to say on that,” Garrett said. “We’ll take a look at it when we get back” from next week’s congressional recess.

Still, for King, it’s personal. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., whose district and hometown of Moore, Okla., was the hardest hit, spoke on the House floor in favor of Sandy aid, and King said he is eager to return the sentiment.

“I’ll do whatever Tom Cole wants me to do. He had nothing personally or politically to gain and he was really on the front lines for us on Sandy aid,” he said. “Tom Cole — and this is really tragically ironic — was the one person who actually fought for New York on the House floor, and he had nothing to gain. He did it really out of decency, and it was his district that was hit the hardest.”

If any aid moves without problems it will be because of Cole, said House Appropriations ranking member Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y. While the majority of GOP lawmakers stonewalled the Sandy relief bill at the end of 2012 and voted against it in the first days of 2013, Cole was one of the 49 Republicans who voted “yes,” Lowey said. With Cole’s district incurring the bulk of the damage, Lowey suggested that perhaps his GOP colleagues would be his allies. The whole Oklahoma delegation, in fact, is made up of Republicans.

But she posited that Republicans are “insensitive and don’t understand the responsibility of the Congress.” She added that she believes the House will do the right thing and make the appropriate funds available to Oklahomans.

At his weekly briefing with reporters on Tuesday morning, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., suggested it should be no surprise that House Democrats would stand united in support of giving the Sooner State the money it needs to rebuild after the tornado’s devastation.

“Our side won’t be different,” Hoyer said, referencing Democrats’ support for disaster relief in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in the face of some GOP opposition. “Folks are in an emergency situation, they’re our fellow citizens in the richest country on the face of the earth. We can afford to make sure in the short term these folks are helped and the long term we pay off whatever’s necessary to do just that.”

As for Republicans who might balk at the prospect of passing a disaster relief bill for the wreckage in Oklahoma without significant offsets, Hoyer said it could all come down to “the ideology of the majority part in the House of Representatives.”

Although King exhibited no qualms about speaking out against those in his own party who would have thwarted the Sandy relief effort and might also block an Oklahoma aide bill, other New York House Republicans, such as Rep. Tom Reed, are playing their cards close to their chests.

Reed, who also voted in favor of the Sandy bill in January, wouldn’t acknowledge on Tuesday the difficulties of getting that piece of legislation through the chamber, or the frustration many members of the region hit by Sandy felt at times when prospects for passage seemed grim.

He took a glass half-full point of view, in fact.

“Coming off of the Sandy situation, I think there is no doubt that we in Washington will stand with our fellow countrymen in Oklahoma,” he said.

That he wasn’t immediately hearing grumblings from his peers about spending cuts and conditions for passing a disaster aide bill, Reed continued, “shows that even though it may have taken a little longer in the Sandy situation, we learn from all prior experiences up here.”

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