Disaster Aid Budgets

The trail of destruction from Hurricane Irene could spark a battle in Congress that we haven't seen for a number of years, as Republicans make noise about forcing budget cuts to pay for any new disaster relief spending by Uncle Sam.

Standard operating procedure in the Congress for generations has been that when natural disasters hit the United States, the federal share for cleanup and economic assistance is simply declared an "emergency" and added on to the budget.

That's been a bipartisan thing.

But with damages from Hurricane Irene forcing FEMA to juggle its disaster aid accounts - shifting money away from tornado relief in the midwest - top Republicans are signaling that maybe it's time to do something different.

Speaking on Fox News this week, Cantor said while Congress is ready to help those in need with disaster relief, it shouldn't mean even more red ink for the federal government.

"Unfortunately the government continues to borrow money and to spend money it doesn't have," Cantor said.

Back in 1995, the new Republican majority in the Congress wanted to do exactly that on disaster funding, so they packaged up a bill that included extra money to deal with the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing and a series of natural disasters, along with budget cuts to pay for it.

Reading through that debate from May of 1995 also opens a window into what we may hear in coming weeks in the Congress.

Republicans talked about how the budget must be balanced; of how average families can't just spend extra cash because of a disaster - they have to cut elsewhere.

Democrats argued that Republicans were trying to cut the budget to pay for tax cuts for the rich.

Those are fairly familiar arguments now in 2011 as well.

What happened with that bill that combined extra billions for FEMA with budget cuts to pay for the disaster aid?

It was easily approved by the House and Senate just before Memorial Day 1995, then it was vetoed by President Clinton.

It won't surprise me if that was the last time that the Congress tried to pay for disaster relief money with budget savings.

We'll see if the outcome is any different after Hurricane Irene.