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Ex-FEMA Official On The Risks Of Offsetting Disaster Aid

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"It happened when we were there," Merritt told TPM in an interview Tuesday. "They've addressed offsets before, and unfortunately offsets were from [Housing and Urban Development] money--community development block grants--which are a good tool for recovering from disaster.... Is anybody vehemently opposed to offsets? No. But they need to make sure that if they do them that, one, it happens quickly and, two, it doesn't come from programs that help recovery."

Not everyone agrees. Former George W. Bush FEMA director Michael Brown gave a thumbs-up to offsetting on Tuesday. TPM reached out to Brown's successor Robert Paulison, but he declined to comment through a spokesperson.

Regardless, it's a tall order given today's gridlock. Many members of Congress believe the budget's already stretched too thin, and those who don't nonetheless disagree amongst themselves about what can and should be cut.

"Do it in a way that it doesn't get drawn out the way it did in the debt ceiling," Merritt implored. "Congress has never not stepped up for any community that's needed it."

It's still unclear whether that will be necessary vis-a-vis Irene. FEMA still has just under $1 billion in its fund, and could see that grow to nearly $4 billion, split between 2011 and 2012, if the House and Senate can agree on Homeland Security appropriations bill this month.

But if there's an appropriations logjam -- and particularly if another costly disaster strikes -- then Congress will need to act quickly to pass an emergency spending bill, without resorting to brinksmanship.

It's still not clear how much, if any, federal disaster relief coastal states will need after Hurricane Irene, but GOP leaders are prepared to make sure it's all offset with spending cuts only. According to Merritt, the costs of these disasters is split between what's known as Immediate Needs Funding (INF) and permanent restoration costs -- the difference between paying a firefighter overtime to rescue a family from a burning building, and then helping the city restore that building.

What FEMA's done, according to Merritt, is say "we're going to stop on the long-term stuff, and it's going to be difficult and painful for those communities trying to recover from [earlier] storms, but we have to because otherwise we won't have enough money in the pot [for current emergencies]."

Shimmying around funds is tough and unpopular and can't work forever, and we'll probably find out soon what happens when Congress has to step in.

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About The Author

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Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com