Republicans in Congress, President Look to Send Aid to Oklahoma

BY Christina Bellantoni and Katelyn Polantz  May 22, 2013 at 9:21 AM EST


A man salvages things from his grandmother’s tornado-devastated home on Tuesday in Moore, Oklahoma. Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

The Morning Line

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.

They also pointed to a handful of examples of unrelated “disaster” spending.

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:

Gwen Ifill examined the DOJ dust-up over the subpoenas of journalists’ phone records in a conversation with First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey. Mukasey, who worked under former President George W. Bush, gave nowhere near as forceful a defense as three former Justice Department officials who penned a New York Times op-ed Tuesday saying the move was in the best interest of national security.

For more on this brewing scandal, read these three stories.

IMMIGRATION AGREEMENT

The Senate now has a comprehensive immigration reform bill to consider. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bipartisan legislation 13-5 Tuesday night after months of negotiations between legislators and interest groups.

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.

The first, on same-sex marriage, won’t be included in the bill after all. Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., withheld “with a heavy heart” his provision to allow immigrant spouses of gay Americans access to green cards, the New York Times reported. Other committee Democrats, including Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, said they couldn’t support it because it would kill bipartisan support for the broader immigration legislation.

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.

The compromise, between Hatch and Schumer, will loosen H-1B visa restrictions and allow employers an easier way to hire skilled foreign workers. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin was concerned the provision would hurt Americans’ opportunities to find jobs, but Hatch pushed for the amendment, along with the high-tech industry.

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.

LINE ITEMS

  • Mr. Obama will use a speech on counter-terrorism policy Thursday to talk about the country’s use of drones, and the New York Times looks ahead to how he’ll note that drone strikes have dropped sharply despite the controversy they’ve sparked back home.

  • Politico’s Glenn Thrush and Reid Epstein write about White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, a former reporter himself, and the “long-simmering” tension between him and the press.

  • Eric Garcetti will be the next Los Angeles mayor, edging out his former city council colleague Wendy Greuel in the most expensive mayoral race in city history. Here’s the LA Times story.

  • The Senate will take a vote on whether Sri Srinivasan will lead the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals when they return from Memorial Day recess.

  • Tracing the evolution of the Benghazi talking points now points to former CIA director General David Petraeus and the fallout from his meeting for coffee with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence three days after the attack.

  • Martha Shoffner resigned her post as Arkansas state treasurer Tuesday, expressing remorse amid extortion charges she took cash payments totalling $36,000 for shifting state bond business to a local firm.

  • Former Democratic New York Rep. Anthony Weiner officially — and perhaps accidentally — announced his candidacy for mayor in a web video posted late Tuesday that was soon removed from his campaign site. In a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn led Weiner 25 to 15 percent.

  • New York City is facing a rise in anti-gay hate crimes, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and police commissioner Ray Kelly said at a Tuesday press conference.

  • Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx will face his first committee hearing Wednesday as senators begin to consider his nomination for U.S. Transportation Secretary.

  • Rep. Michele Bachmann, R.-Minn., Rep. Steve King, R.-Iowa, and Rep. Bill Keating, D.-Mass., are among the six representatives planning to travel to Russia next week to discuss the Boston Marathon bombing investigations, the Boston Globe reports.

  • “President Barack Obama believes firmly in freedom of the press and does not want journalists to be prosecuted for doing their jobs, the White House said,” Reuters’ Jeff Mason wrote Tuesday. Good to know. The White House was responding to the Department of Justice’s seizure of Associated Press phone records and to the scrutiny of Fox News correspondent James Rosen in a separate leaks investigation.

  • Parts of Pfc. Bradley Manning’s trial, on aiding the enemy and espionage charges after he passed documents to Wikileaks, will be closed to the public because of classified material.

  • Left-leaning Public Policy Polling surveyed Minnesota and found Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s popularity still soaring among U.S. senators, and a 9-point net approval rating that may help Franken retain his seat.

  • There’s an “awkward arranged marriage” atop Virginia’s Republican ticket this year, National Journal writes, with gubernatorial hopeful Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli downpaying his social conservativism to build more moderate support and surprise lieutenant governor nominee E.W. Jackson embracing ultra-conservative views.

  • The recent trio of political controversies has significantly changed the political landscape for 2014, argues Stu Rothenberg, prompting him to adjust his Senate ratings to a lot less favorable for Democrats in red states.

  • The Senate is bickering over food stamps and agriculture subsidies as it debates the farm bill.

  • 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.

  • The Chandra Levy case continues as a judge promised more openness after months of confidential post-trial proceedings, the Associated Press reports. The judge disclosed for the first time the reason a key prosecution witness could be discredited.

  • The Internet Archive received $1 million in Knight Foundation funding to expand its television news search and borrow service that allows anyone to see thousands of hours of programming. The project could allow news outlets like our own to examine campaign messaging and local news coverage in places like Virginia, which holds one of the few competitive races this fall.

  • Former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who leads the Harvard Institute of Politics, was named Tuesday to the president’s commission on voting reform.

  • Forbes profiles twin sisters, both Harvard sophomores, trying to change the world.

  • Meet Zach. Prepare for your heartstrings to be tugged.

  • Sounds like Christina will be visiting home in late January 2016.

NEWSHOUR ROUNDUP

  • We talked with Time’s Jay Newtown-Small and local officials in Oklahoma about the scene after the tornado. And here is Newton-Small’s latest piece from the ground in Moore.

  • “Ask the Headhunter” reader Andy H. writes in with a success story on how he landed a job in a month by following Making Sense contributor Nick Corcodilos’ advice.

TOP TWEETS

Desk assistant Simone Pathe contributed to this report.

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Questions or comments? Email Christina Bellantoni at cbellantoni-at-newshour-dot-org.

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