Senate Republicans aren't backing away from insisting that federal disaster aid should be offset by spending cuts in other parts of the budget, even as many GOP caucus members represent states affected this year by severe weather and wildfires.
As Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) vowed Wednesday to quickly move on legislation providing $6 billion in emergency disaster relief for states, Republicans refused to take their eye off cutting spending amid the debt crisis.
"We can't keep spending money we don't have," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, where deadly wildfires have charred tens of thousands of acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), whose state suffered flooding along its coasts from Hurricane Irene, views offsets as a prime opportunity to eliminate wasteful spending, and disputed Democrats' contention that they could delay money from getting to needy communities.
"I think we've got to offset everything; anything that's not allocated has got to be offset these days. It shouldn't delay it," Burr told POLITICO. "There's hundreds of billions of dollars of waste, fraud and abuse that could be accessed like that."
Sensing a political advantage, Reid stood before a bank of reporters and television cameras and accused some of his Republican colleagues of "trying to cater to the tea party by holding up relief efforts."
"I don't see how we, in this great nation that we have, can stand on the sidelines while our people are suffering," Reid said. "We should give relief to people when they need it."
Democrats spent much of Wednesday's closed-door caucus meeting hearing updates about damage from floods, hurricanes and other disasters around the country, Reid said. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders gave an overview of the situation in Vermont, where flooding has driven hundreds of people from their homes and businesses and washed out as many as 200 bridges.
The majority leader said he would soon bring to the floor standalone legislation that would replenish Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund, which has been nearly exhausted after Mother Nature delivered a nasty one-two punch: a series of twisters in the Midwest and South last spring, followed by Hurricanes Irene and Lee.
The $6 billion in disaster funding already is part of a larger bill funding homeland security that the Senate Appropriations Committee marked up on Wednesday.
GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Cornyn's fellow Texan, said she believes "in general that our disaster relief money should be offset." Freshman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), whose state has experienced minor flooding this year, agreed, saying the this year's $1.3 trillion federal deficit simply can't be ignored.
"I think helping states in a disaster should be a priority," Johnson said. "We got to find things that are less of a priority."
Fellow freshman Sen. John Hoeven, the former governor of North Dakota, spent a chunk of his August recess touring cities and towns across the state that have been devastated by record flooding. In the Minot region, 11,000 people have been evacuated and 4,000 homes destroyed.
But while he understands the need for relief, Hoeven said he believes Congress needs to address the nation's economic disaster.
"We need to help these people. ... That's one thing America does: When we have a natural disaster, we help our people," he told POLITICO. "But at the same time we also want to find offsets so we continue to address our fiscal situation. We need to do both."