WASHINGTON — As Senator Bernard Sanders toured Vermont by helicopter on Tuesday to assess the damage from what he said could be his state’s worst-ever natural disaster, the idea of cutting other federal programs to aid towns pummeled by Hurricane Irene was stoking his outrage.
“To say that the only way you can come up with funding to rebuild devastated communities is to cut back on other desperately needed programs is totally absurd,” said Mr. Sanders, an independent, responding to a call by leading Republicans to balance any financial relief with spending reductions elsewhere. “Historically in this country we have understood that when communities and states experience disasters, we as a nation come together to address those.
“That is what being a nation is about,” he said in an interview.
The new push for federal austerity is threatening to change the traditional dynamic when it comes to government relief in the aftermath of a storm, an earthquake or other calamity. It has touched off an intensifying debate over whether the government should just tack needed money onto the deficit or try to find a way to adjust the budget to cover the costs.
Holding fast to their push for lower federal spending, top Congressional Republicans have argued that any federal aid in the aftermath of the double whammy of an earthquake followed by a hurricane should be offset, if possible, by spending less on other programs.
“Clearly when disasters and emergencies happen, people expect their government to treat them as national priorities and respond properly,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Representative Eric Cantor, the Virginia Republican and majority leader who has advocated offsetting emergency aid. “People also expect their government to spend their dollars wisely, and to make efforts to prioritize and save when possible.”
Representative Ron Paul, the Texas Republican who is seeking his party’s presidential nomination, has gone beyond that view to argue that the federal government’s role in disaster preparation and relief should be cut substantially. Mr. Paul said he saw little value in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, saying the federal approach has given birth to an intrusive bureaucracy and supplants what should be an area for private insurance.
“The bleeding heart will say, well, we have to take care of them,” Mr. Paul said on “Fox News Sunday,” calling FEMA “a gross distortion of insurance” and saying that workers for the agency “hinder the local people, and they hinder volunteers from going in.”
“So there’s no magic about FEMA,” he concluded.
That view and the idea of offsetting the cost of relief is unsettling to those of both parties who see disaster aid as a chief responsibility of the federal government. They note that past efforts were financed through deficit spending by both parties — a fact pointedly made on Tuesday by the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, when he was asked about paying for relief efforts with corresponding cuts.
“I guess I can’t help but say that I wish that commitment to looking for offsets had been held by the House majority leader and others, say, during the previous administration when they ran up unprecedented bills and never paid for them," Mr. Carney said.
As FEMA struggles with its own significant shortfall in financing, officials at the agency emphasized this week that immediate relief efforts were not being shortchanged even as the agency had been forced to shift money to cover its costs.
“Our immediate focus is continuing doing everything we can to support our state and local partners as they respond to Irene and meet the immediate needs of disaster survivors, and we have the resources needed to do this,” an agency spokeswoman, Rachel Racusen, said.
Conservative Republicans have pushed in the past to pay for disaster relief through budget cuts elsewhere, most notably in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But party leaders ultimately relented under political and public pressure, and much of the aid was delivered through deficit spending. Research by Senate Democrats showed that since 1989, Congress has approved 33 emergency appropriations for disaster relief without offsetting that money with cuts in other departments or agencies.
But with the federal debt now more than $14 trillion, the dialogue has shifted on Capitol Hill, and Republicans are under pressure to hold firm on spending. The hard-fought debt limit deal struck this month would cut spending for federal agencies by $7 billion in 2012, and much of that savings could be quickly consumed by emergency relief.
Congress will return next week to begin confronting the issue, both in setting a budget for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes disaster relief money, and a stopgap measure most likely to be needed as the end of the fiscal year, which is Sept. 30 approaches. It promises to be a politically charged fight.
In an appearance on Fox News this week, Mr. Cantor promised to find the money for the storm aid.
“But those monies are not unlimited,” said Mr. Cantor, who called for offsets and faulted the Senate for not moving ahead with a bill passed by the House to bolster FEMA’s accounts.
In response, top Democrats warned that the emergency relief should not get tied up in the running budget dispute.
“While getting our fiscal house in order needs to remain a top priority,” said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the Democrat whip, “this is clearly an emergency situation, and we need to take action as quickly as possible to help those in need.”