Lawmakers Fight Over Emergency Funding

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(Host) As Vermonters are still recovering from Tropical Storm Irene, lawmakers on Capitol are fighting over how to pay for the emergency funding.

VPR’s Matt Laslo reports from Washington. 

(Laslo) Irene left most of Vermont a federal disaster area, with bridges and houses washed out in its wake.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA has less than $700 million in its disaster fund, so it’s had to put long term rebuilding priorities on hold as it assists victims of these recent storms.

At a hearing Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy told his colleagues that Vermont needs all the federal assistance it can get as soon as possible.

(Leahy) "We could have snowfall in less than two months. In less than two months we could have snow fall and significant snow fall. Beginning in November most asphalt companies shutdown, because you can’t spread asphalt when it gets cold and we could have zero degree days during that."

(Laslo) Irene left an estimated price tag of $1.5 billion in damage up and down the east coast. Earlier this year the House allocated an extra $1 billion in emergency funding, but Senate Democrats oppose that bill because it pays for the disasters by taking money away from a program to spur hybrid vehicle development. Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders says he opposes the GOP argument that disasters need to be paid for immediately.

(Sanders) "I think that that’s a totally absurd argument."

Sanders says Republicans are being hypocritical by tying emergency funding to spending cuts.

(Sanders) "Many of the same folks who are making that argument did not hesitate at all to rush as quickly as they could to bail out Wall Street – no offsets. But when communities are devastated, and working families are without their homes or their businesses, suddenly there are offsets. That to me makes no sense at all."

(Leahy) There is more support in the Senate to pass a standalone emergency funding bill, but it’s unclear how much leverage Republican senators can exert over the House. Indiana Senator Dan Coates is the top Republican on the subcommittee that funds FEMA. He says his Senate GOP colleagues are still undecided about whether to tie the emergency funding to spending cuts.

(Coates) "I don’t have a final answer on that yet, we’re just sort of checking the boxes and looking through the weeds to see what the best approach is."

(Laslo) By the end of September Congress needs to pass a temporary spending bill to keep the government funded through the rest of the year. There’s a possibility new emergency funding could be included in that legislation. Leahy says he’d be fine with that or any other vehicle to get the money to Vermont.

(Leahy) "I don’t care which way it’s done. It just has to be done. Let’s stand up and stop looking for bumper sticker kind of politics. Let’s be realistic and let’s stand up for America."

With FEMA’s emergency account running low many lawmakers are concerned congressional gridlock could now delay the rebuilding efforts across Vermont. 

For VPR News, I’m Matt Laslo in Washington.

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