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Senate Democrats Tie Romney Gulf Coast Visit to Ryan’s Proposed Cuts to Disaster Relief

The only real notable element of Mitt Romney’s post-convention performance today was that he accidentally referred to the United States as a company, i.e. a person. But in anticipation of his visit to the Gulf Coast for some photo-ops with victims of Hurricane Isaac, Senate Democrats are using unusual vigor to hold House Republicans, mainly Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan, accountable for the near-denial of disaster relief funds that will be put to use in the aftermath of the storm.

The story goes back to the debt limit deal. That set a spending cap for future budgets with a hard-dollar number. However, it allowed for some flexibility for disaster relief, where the federal government could go above the cap. But even after agreeing to the deal, House Republicans, led by Ryan, wanted to block that, which would have forced unpredictable disaster relief funding to get offsets in the federal budget. This really came to a head last fall, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency nearly depleted its budget before the year was out, which would have forced a supplemental funding bill. The Office of Management and Budget somehow found enough funds to carry through the end of the year, and Republicans reluctantly went along with the flexible cap for disaster relief. But some, including Ryan, did not:

It had been a different story earlier in the year as the government’s chief disaster fund almost ran dry, thanks to foot-dragging by the White House and demands by tea party House Republicans that disaster aid be partly “paid for” with cuts to programs that Obama favored. The administration instead let the political pressure build as disaster accounts dwindled, sparking the ire of both his GOP rivals and allies like Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., but turning the tables in its favor.

Months after agreeing to the new regime, Republican leaders still had to turn to procedural maneuvers to orchestrate passage of $8.8 billion in disaster money in keeping with the agreement. Ryan, the House Budget Committee’s chairman, was among 66 Republicans opposing the measure […]

Many House Republicans, however, are unhappy with the new approach. Ryan earlier this year tried to gut it and eliminate $10 billion a year in disaster costs when putting together the House GOP budget.

But in doing so Ryan sideswiped a still-powerful Appropriations Committee that was still stinging from $19 billion in Budget Committee-induced cuts to last year’s deal. Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., protested to GOP leaders and won a gentleman’s agreement that the new system would stay in place, at least for this year.

Essentially, Ryan’s view is that the federal government should find offsets every single time they have to appropriate disaster funding. The shock of a natural disaster would be put to use for more spending cuts. That’s on top of what Ryan would do to the base FEMA budget, which would have to drop along with everything else in the discretionary spending basket by 70-80%.

The Senate Democratic leadership, which has opposed this consistently, came out very hard against Ryan today, roping in Romney on his visit to the Gulf Coast. Chuck Schumer’s office released a statement challenging Romney to make his position on this issue clear: “Mitt Romney needs to say whether or not he supports his running mate’s plan to keep emergency disaster aid out of the federal budget. If House Republicans like Paul Ryan had had their way, the Gulf Coast might not have federal funds available to respond to Hurricane Isaac right away. It is an affront for Mitt Romney to go to Louisiana given what the Ryan budget would have meant for our emergency preparedness.”

Harry Reid was even more blunt. “Under a Romney-Ryan administration, we would not have been prepared to respond to Hurricane Isaac,” Reid said in a statement. “It is the height of hypocrisy for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to make a pretense of showing sympathy for the victims of Hurricane Isaac when their policies would leave those affected by this disaster stranded and on their own.”

So far, the Obama campaign hasn’t taken up this rhetoric. But the President plans to visit Louisiana on Monday. So this will stick around in the news for a few days.

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David Dayen

David Dayen