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updated 8/30/2011 4:30:06 PM ET 2011-08-30T20:30:06

A political battle between the tea party-driven House and the Democratic-controlled Senate is threatening to slow money to the government's main disaster aid account, which is so low that new rebuilding projects have been put on hold to help victims of Hurricane Irene and future disasters.

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency has less than $800 million in its disaster coffers. A debate over whether to cut spending elsewhere in the federal budget to pay for tornado and hurricane aid seems likely to delay legislation to provide the billions of dollars needed to replenish FEMA's disaster aid in the upcoming budget year.

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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the House will require offsetting spending cuts. Irene caused significant damage in Virginia, and Cantor's own district sustained damage from last week's earthquake.

Key Senate Democrats said they'll oppose the idea of offsetting cuts when a bill funding FEMA gets under way in the Senate.

Of $130 billion provided in FEMA disaster funds over the past two decades, some $110 billion has been provided as emergency funding in addition to the annual budget.

Video: Obama officials to assess recovery efforts (on this page)

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, said Tuesday the number and cost of disasters have grown dramatically over the past few years and that it's unrealistic to require offsetting spending cuts. Durbin presided over a recent hearing on disaster costs.

"If (Cantor) believes that we can nip and tuck at the rest of the federal budget and somehow take care of disasters, he's totally out of touch with reality," Durbin said.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana — her state is still rebuilding six years after Hurricane Katrina — said that she will take advantage of a little-noticed provision in the recently passed debt limit and budget deal that permits Congress to pass several billion dollars in additional FEMA disaster aid without budget cuts elsewhere. The provision in the new law would allow at least $6 billion in disaster aid to be added to the budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

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Landrieu chairs the Appropriations homeland security panel responsible for FEMA's budget, and she's pushing back hard against a GOP demand that boosts in disaster relief be "paid for" with cuts elsewhere in the budget.

The House FEMA funding measure, passed in early June, provides $1 billion in immediate disaster funding paid for by cuts to a loan program backed by the Obama administration to encourage the production of fuel-efficient vehicles and taps into Obama priorities like first responder grants to add $850 million to the administration's $1.8 billion disaster aid request for 2012.

"We should address emergency aid in the way we traditionally have in the past — without political strings attached," Landrieu said. Her version of the legislation will provide a significant increase in disaster aid funding without offsetting spending cuts as permitted under the just-passed budget deal, she said.

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Landrieu isn't getting a lot of help from the White House. Its February request for disaster funding next year is insufficient to fund pending demands from past disasters like hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav and the massive Tennessee floods of last spring — and it threatens to slow rebuilding efforts in Joplin, Mo., and the Alabama towns devastated by tornadoes last spring.

The shortfalls in FEMA's disaster aid account have been obvious to lawmakers on Capitol Hill for months — and privately acknowledged to them by FEMA — but the White House has opted against asking for more money, riling many lawmakers.

"Despite the fact that the need ... is well known," Reps. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., and David Price, D-N.C., wrote the administration last month, "it unfortunately appears that no action is being taken by the administration." The lawmakers chair the House panel responsible for FEMA's budget.

FEMA now admits the disaster aid shortfall could approach $5 billion for the upcoming budget year, and that's before accounting for Irene.

As a result, funds to help states and local governments rebuild from this year's tornadoes as well as past disasters have been frozen. Instead, FEMA is only paying for the "immediate needs" of disaster-stricken communities, which include debris removal, food, water and emergency shelter.

Video: FEMA delivers aid to Vermont (on this page)

"Going into September being the peak part of hurricane season, and with Irene, we didn't want to get to the point where we would not have the funds to continue to support the previous impacted survivors as well as respond to the next disaster," FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told reporters at the White House on Monday.

Earlier this year, the administration requested $1.8 billion for FEMA's disaster relief fund, despite pent-up demands for much more. Appropriations for last year totaled four times that amount.

FEMA estimates that the request still left the disaster fund short by $2 billion to $4.8 billion for the upcoming fiscal year. Those are figures the agency provided to Congress last spring — before Irene or the tornadoes that destroyed huge swaths of Joplin or beat up the South.

It's hardly the first time that longer-term rebuilding projects like schools and sewer systems have been frozen out to make sure there's money to provide disaster victims with immediate help with food, water and shelter. But it's frustrating to communities like Nashville, Tenn., which is rebuilding from last year's historic floods.

Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Obama officials to assess recovery efforts

  1. Closed captioning of: Obama officials to assess recovery efforts

    >>> the obama administration is sending top officials to several of those states to personally assess recovery and response efforts. now joined by the former head of fema around president georges w. bush he joins me now from florida. david, i'm sure you just heard. you heard from senator leahy on the ground and congressman pascrell. the passaic river is doing something that we haven't seen in 100 years. tell me when you hear these local, desperate pleas and they're coming at you and right now at fema they're coming from multiple states, how do you prioritize?

    >> fema has a great organization. after katrina we learned a tremendous lesson about changing fema from a reactive to a proactive organization. craig fugate is currented a administrator is going an outstanding job. the initial response belongs to the local and states. they're doing an outstanding job. we've seen all of the governors up front not only telling people what to do, but how to do it. telling them what is expected to do. i've been pleased with the response. i have to tell you that.

    >> you know, in about two or three weeks, the attention that we're all giving this because it's in the moment goes away and then you do start seeing the political fights on funding on prioritizing. when you were at fema and you were in the middle of some of these political fights you wnt trying to have them, you're getting drawn into them. how do you keep going and fight for some extra funding that i know you need and at the same time try to keep the politics out of it?

    >> the whole purpose of the disaster relief fund is for what we're looking at right now. they help people get back on their feet that don't have insurance. help communities and states to rebuild the public infrastructure has been damaged. that's what the disaster relief fund is for. it's separate from fema's normal operating budget in. the past the congress has been very careful to watch that fund and make sure that fema had the resources to do its job. it's going to be difficult. we see the politics getting involved. don't forget some of these projects are going to take yeaears to rebuild. we could stagger some of those dollars out. we can make sure there's not a big hit at any period of time. craig fugate is aware of this. there's got to be permitting and engineering for the bridges. they have to be reinspected and perhaps rebuilt in some cases. those are the types of things that take years to do and we can make -- we need to make sure that we have the funds to do that. that's the purpose of fema. that's the purpose of the disaster relief fund.

    >> very kwukly, i want to ask you about the science situation. both governor shum len and senator leahy, vermont is experiencing some problems they've not experienced before. they think it's a possibility with climate change . how much does fema need to get involved in studying this so that you can be better prepared for flooding from what was not even a hurricane, a tropical storm by the time it hit vermont because of of changing weather patterns?

    >> chuck, that's right on target. i think that this was barely a category one storm when it hit. what if it was a category three or four storm? just like we learned in katrina the lessons there, we have to step back at look at the lessons we learned here. the storms are getting bigger, more ferocious. fema does need to be involved in what's happening with the climate regardless of the cause. and make sure that we adjust to that and provide the resources and engineering to help these cities and states prepare for these type of events.

    >> former head of fema under former president george w. bush . thanks for joining me tonight.

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