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Brattleboro Reformer

Four days since Tropical Storm Irene ravaged Vermont, the flood waters have receded, and we've begun the lengthy process of assessing the damage and beginning repairs.

It's no secret that the economy's been better -- in Vermont, the country, and around the globe -- so the hefty pricetag associated with clean-up and reparations won't make the state's budget look any better.

Which is why it was a welcome relief to see Pres. Obama on Monday sign an emergency declaration for the state to begin the process of getting federal funding here. Gov. Peter Shumlin praised the response during an interview with CBS News on Tuesday: "We're getting tremendous help from the federal government."

And on Wednesday, Vermont's congressional delegation said that the U.S. Department of Transportation had allocated $5 million to help the state begin to rebuild highways and bridges damaged by Sunday's deluge.

The money, according to the Associated Press, is for immediate responses to storm damage and will not reduce the amount Vermont may ultimately receive through other federal programs.

But already, relief from Irene is becoming the focus of renewed national spending debates in Washington.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., says new federal spending for hurricane recovery must be offset by spending cuts elsewhere, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, and Democrats are accusing him of playing politics with disaster.

The crux of the problem:the public's traditional desire to help Americans battered by natural disasters is running up against a surge of concern over federal spending.

"If Republicans want to block disaster relief, they will feel the wrath of everyday people," Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D.-N.J., stated in an e-mail to the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.

"We are going to find the money," Cantor told Fox News recently. "We are just going to have to make sure there are savings elsewhere to continue to do so."

Surely that's not a threat?

Sen. Bernie Sanders has emphasized Vermont's rebuilding effort will require strong cooperation between the federal government and the state. By his estimates, flood repair costs will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo estimates his state's cost at $1 billion.

Imagine the total costs for the whole East Coast.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is warning of a $5 billion shortfall for FEMA (pre-Irene), and the Wall Street Journal is also reporting that FEMAhas already started diverting funds for rebuilding in tornado-ravaged areas to Irene aid.

So while we hope this doesn't turn into a game of politics, something tells us the pieces are already being placed on the table. Let's hope the game doesn't prevent the most needy from getting help.

This is one to keep an eye on ....