For Republicans, Oklahoma Tornado Revives Questions About Disaster Relief

Congressional Republicans are torn between their desire to help the reeling residents of Moore, Okla., with their recent zeal for deficit reduction.

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Resident Taylor Tennyson sits in the front yard as family members salvage the remains from their home which was left devastated by a tornado in Moore, Okla., on May 21, 2013.

Many politicians complain about wasteful spending until they’re on the receiving end. Not Tom Coburn. Throughout his career, the Republican Senator from Oklahoma has consistently argued that disaster-relief funds must be offset by matching spending cuts, even when his home state is the one afflicted by tragedy. Coburn says he will “absolutely” insist that federal aid to the communities shredded by a severe tornado in Oklahoma on Monday be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget.

The question is how many of his colleagues agree. Congressional Republicans on Tuesday were thrust into the tricky position of balancing their desire to help the reeling residents of Moore, Okla., with their recent zeal for deficit reduction. It may seem “crass,” as Coburn’s spokesman put it, to focus on political calculations as rescue crews pick through the wreckage of a tragic storm that left at least 24 dead. But politics can hamper the speed and success of the recovery efforts after tragedies like this.

When Superstorm Sandy battered the East Coast last fall, House Republicans’ insistence that disaster aid be offset by commensurate cuts delayed the flow of cash to the stricken region by several weeks. Speaker John Boehner was forced to scrap a planned vote on New Year’s Day; when the bill finally came up for a vote, 179 Republicans in the House opposed it.

(MORE: Superstorm Sandy, Six Months Later)

Some conservatives appear to have changed their tune this time. Like most Republicans, Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma opposed the $60 billion Sandy package, arguing it was laden with pork. At the time, Inhofe dubbed the bill a “slush fund.” But in an interview with MSNBC Tuesday morning he suggested the effort to help his home state would be different. “Everybody was getting in and exploiting the tragedy that took place,” Inhofe said of the Sandy-relief bill. “That won’t happen in Oklahoma.”

Inhofe’s point was echoed by a spokeswoman for Jim Bridenstine, one of three Republican Congressmen from Oklahoma who voted against the big Sandy package in January. “You really can’t compare the two,” says Sheryl Kaufman, Bridenstine’s communications director. “Sandy was a major spending bill that went well beyond anything related to relief.” Bridenstine has no objection to disaster relief funding, Kaufman said, but “he does believe we need to offset spending whenever there’s a federal expenditure proposal” in order to reach a balanced budget.

Some Republicans, including House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, Missouri Senator Roy Blunt and Arizona Republican John McCain, said they didn’t think new spending cuts should be a precondition to disaster aid. “I respect Senator Coburn’s view,” McCain told reporters outside the Republican caucus lunch on Tuesday. “It’s laudable, and I would support [finding cuts], but if we can’t the important thing is to get assistance to these people as quickly as possible.”

A few conservative senators sided with Coburn, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, including influential members like Marco Rubio of Florida and John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican. “I would vote against a bill that didn’t include offsets,” Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson said, according to the Journal.

(MORE: The Hidden Economic Victims of Superstorm Sandy)

The top Republicans on both sides of the Capitol sought to sidestep the controversy. “I think the first thing to do is finish the damage assessment, and then we’ll figure out a way forward,” Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell told reporters. Boehner pledged to “work with the administration on making sure that they have the resources they need to help the people of Oklahoma,” but dodged questions about whether his caucus would demand the costs be offset.

A House Republican leadership aide suggests the matter is moot, since FEMA’s disaster-relief fund currently contains some $11.6 billion to foot the bill for the cleanup. Monday’s twister was uncommonly severe: a rare EF-5 storm, it packed winds of more than 200 miles per hour and cut a 17-mile swath of devastation during a hellish 50 minutes. Rebuilding the razed sections of Moore, just outside Oklahoma city, will be costly. But the tab is likely to be just a fraction of the amount FEMA currently has in its coffers. A 1999 tornado in Moore, also an EF-5, cost $1.4 billion — one of just six in history to top the billion-dollar mark.

(PHOTOS: Tornado Flattens Suburb Outside Oklahoma City, Kills Dozens)

House Democrats signaled they would funnel federal money to Oklahoma as quickly as possible. “I hope we don’t get bogged down in a fight over offsets,” Joe Crowley, vice chair of the House Democratic caucus, told reporters.

The White House pledged that local officials in Oklahoma would have the assistance required to rebuild. “The President has made clear that we will make sure that Oklahoma has the resources that it needs” to aid an ailing community, Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday. “Right now, FEMA has sufficient resources to do that.” But it is an open question how the GOP will respond if, at some point, that is no longer the case.

(PHOTOS: Moments of Hope in Oklahoma: One Photographer’s Story)