POLITICS -- May 22, 2013 at 9:21 AM ET
Republicans in Congress, President Look to Send Aid to Oklahoma
A man salvages things from his grandmother's tornado-devastated home on Tuesday in Moore, Oklahoma. Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
As Oklahoma residents sift through shreds of their community, mourn shocking losses and press ahead with rescue efforts, politicians back in Washington are getting to the increasingly difficult business of funding the post-tornado recovery.
Officials estimated the potential cost at $1 billion or more, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill already are arguing over how that money will be shaped. President Barack Obama pledged full help for Moore, Okla. and the surrounding area ravaged by the twister, even though months-long budget battles over funding the government rage on.
The spotlight is shining on members of Oklahoma's all-Republican delegation.
"This is what disaster relief is for. I frankly am very proud I voted for Sandy relief," Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole told NPR on Tuesday morning. "I actually made the comment, you know, we're only one tornado away from being Joplin. I just didn't know it'd be quite this quick."
In fact, Cole was one of just two members of his delegation to back aid for an East Coast ravaged by Superstorm Sandy just before last year's elections. At the time, Cole told lawmakers they "ought to recognize at some point his or her area will be hit by some disaster, and they will be here seeking support."
Roll Call's Niels Lesniewski and Daniel Newhauser write that New York Rep. Peter King, who railed against his own Republican party last fall for failing to approve Sandy relief in a timely manner, is promising to champion Oklahoma aid.
"I think they should get every penny they need," King told Roll Call. "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."
Leading the Sooner State delegation are two ultra-conservative senators who each have criticized government spending, but this week they are on different pages.
Sen. Jim Inhofe said on MSNBC Tuesday that help for his state was "different" from the Sandy bill, which he said contained pork-barrel spending on unrelated items.
He said: "They had things in the Virgin Islands. They were fixing roads there. They were putting roofs on houses in Washington, D.C.; everybody was getting in and exploiting the tragedy that took place. That won't happen in Oklahoma."
The president spoke with Inhofe Tuesday night, "to make clear that FEMA stood ready to continue to support the people of Oklahoma through the immediate response phase as well as the recovery," a White House official said.
Mr. Obama also has been speaking with Republican Gov. Mary Fallin and Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis.
The White House noted that more than 1,000 people have registered for assistance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Oklahoma's junior senator, Tom Coburn, has long said any new funding -- for anything -- needs to be offset for a cut from somewhere else. And the Republican's office made clear that hasn't changed. Coburn spokesman John Hart told reporters Tuesday that faced with such a choice about disaster aid, "we should divert funds from largesse to victims."
Peppered with questions, Coburn's office sent out talking points Tuesday that included a warning it is "crass for critics to play disaster aid politics when first responders are pulling victims from the rubble," and noted FEMA had $11.6 billion in its Disaster Relief Fund as of that day, so "We don't know if an emergency aid package will even be necessary."
"Coburn has opposed disaster aid bills in the past because he believes disaster funding should be used to pay for disasters, not a wish-list of parochial or backlogged priorities that have nothing to do with helping victims," his office said.
Coburn's unsurprising stance on spending may not prevent a measure from passing the Democratic-controlled Senate, but House Speaker John Boehner faces a much different scenario in his caucus across the Capitol.
Last fall, some lawmakers who opposed Sandy aid just before the election took heated criticism. Huffington Post's Jennifer Bendery writes that Boehner "demurred each time" reporters asked him about a timeline for a disaster aid package and whether Republicans will require that its cost be matched by spending cuts.
"We'll work with the administration on making sure that they have the resources they need to help the people of Oklahoma," Boehner said.
But Politico reported: "House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky. said if additional money is needed beyond the $11.6 billion, it shouldn't be offset with spending cuts."
From the story:
"I really don't think disasters of this type should be offset," Rogers said Tuesday. "We have an obligation to help those people. We'll worry about our budgetary items back here, but the aid has to be there."
The New York Times notes the storm briefly shifted the attention away from the White House's trio of political scandals. But the IRS probe, Benghazi and the Justice Department's phone records' subpoenas still appeared on the nation's front-pages alongside images of devastation in Oklahoma.
Peter Baker and Jeremy W. Peters reported:
For Mr. Obama, the storm once again thrust him into the role of national emergency responder and comforter, a function he has performed repeatedly in recent months after the hurricane in the Northeast, the school shooting in Connecticut, the terrorist bombing in Boston and the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas.
The disaster served to distract attention at least for a day from controversies that the White House would prefer not to talk about, particularly the handling of last year's attack on a diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service and the seizure of phone records of journalists reporting on national security.
The IRS was the other big focus on Capitol Hill, as former Commissioner Doug Shulman appeared before lawmakers for the first time. He repeatedly said he wasn't sure how agents went about putting extra scrutiny on conservative organizations with "tea party," "patriot" and "9/12" in their names, but said he regretted what happened and that it should have been run up the chain of command.
The scrutiny came as he revealed that even though he first learned about parts of the targeting in May 2012, he wasn't forthcoming with lawmakers asking questions.
And the IRS' Lois Lerner may invoke the Fifth Amendment when she appears before the House Oversight Committee Wednesday.
The NewsHour's Judy Woodruff reported on the hearings Tuesday.
Watch the segment here or below:
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The full Senate likely will begin debate on the bill as early as the first week of June.
Mr. Obama released a statement Tuesday encouraging the Senate to bring the bill to the floor as soon as possible. "None of the Committee members got everything they wanted, and neither did I, but in the end, we all owe it to the American people to get the best possible result over the finish line," the president said.
Two closely watched proposed amendments aimed to expand the legislation's entitlements to same-sex couples and give provisions for high-skilled workers.
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Sen. Orrin Hatch became a key Republican on another amendment that helped the bill out of committee. He's considered someone who can build support within his party and aid the four Republicans and four Democrats who authored the legislation, the Los Angeles Times wrote Tuesday.
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Hatch joined two other Republicans who voted for the bill: Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona, both members of the bipartisan Gang of Eight.
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The Peace Corps announced a major change Tuesday and will begin accepting applications from same-sex couples who want to serve in the same location.
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You're not only a great athlete, you're a great humanitarian. On behalf of all of us, thank you for your generosity.--VP to @kdtrey5— Office of VP Biden (@VP) May 21, 2013
In 20 days, John Dingell will become the longest serving member of Congress in history.— Jack Bohrer (@JRBoh) May 21, 2013
Note this date for the history books: Sen. Schumer just walked past the media and said "no comment."— Stew (@StewSays) May 21, 2013
Anthony Weiner played stickball growing up? When was he born, 1912?— Dan Amira (@DanAmira) May 22, 2013
Once again, the Senate Farm Bill is as bloated as a cow on new alfalfa. #corporatewelfare— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) May 21, 2013
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Desk assistant Simone Pathe contributed to this report.
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