Hurricane Eric: Democrats See Opening In Cantor’s Disaster Aid Offset Talk

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s requirement that new disaster relief spending be funded with spending cuts has left members of his party open to attack, Democrats say, and they don’t plan to waste the opportunity.

This week, the DCCC called on 25 East Coast Republican members to either stand with Cantor’s call for offset disaster spending or publicly oppose it. In areas still drying out from Hurricane Irene and repairing the damage from the East Coast earthquake that preceded it, Democrats think the suggestion that federal aid should be used as another budget cut bargaining chip will not sit well with voters.“The best hard data [that such a line of attack will work] is the number of Republicans that are running away from it,” a Democratic aid told TPM, pointing to statements by Republican governors of storm-damaged states that disagree with Cantor. “They wouldn’t be running away from it if it wasn’t a politically unsafe position.”

The NRCC did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the DCCC campaign.

At the state level, Democrats are also jumping on Cantor’s words. In Virginia, home to Cantor’s Richmond-area district, the state Democratic party fired off a fundraising email Thursday based on Cantor’s Irene talk.

“Together, we send a powerful message,” the email read, “if you threaten to withhold disaster relief to serve your immediate political ambitions, you’ve crossed a line.”

For his part, Cantor has argued his comments about offsets are basically irrelevant, because the House already passed funding to replenish the FEMA disaster money pool and is now waiting for the Senate to pass the bill. But should new money beyond those funds be required, Cantor has suggested he’d want to use new government cuts to pay for it. And therein lies the bind.

Over at the DSCC, they’re already starting to see the issue take root in the Senate fight. The campaign of former Senator George Allen, who polls suggest will be the Republican nominee in the open Virginia Senate race against expected Democratic nominee and former Gov. Tim Kaine, told reporters that Allen stands with Cantor. That prompted an immediate attack from Team Kaine.

Kaine “believes we should never look at hard-hit families and communities after a disaster and tell them that relief funds depend on budget negotiations in Washington,” a spokesperson told the Washington Post.

How far this fight will spread beyond the states directly affected by Irene depends on how the debate in Congress goes now that everyone’s about to be back from their August recess, Democrats say. Indeed, Republicans say that a Democratic cry for new spending to pay for disaster relief could blow up in their faces.

“If the Democrats’ campaign strategy is to borrow more, and explain later, then I look forward to hearing what [Democratic Sens.] Claire McCaskill (MO), Ben Nelson (NE), Jon Tester (MT) and other 2012 Democrats have to say about that,” NRSC Communications Director Brian Walsh told TPM, referring to several top GOP 2012 targets .”I suspect their constituents may have a different view than their liberal campaign operatives in Washington.”

But could a fight over Irene aid funding come to Congress, Democrats insist Cantor may end up kicking himself for sticking to his guns on offsets.

“It’s going to be slow developing until Congress takes on the aid,” DSCC Communications Director Matt Canter told TPM. But the fight is “sure to provide just an enormous splinter in the Republican Party.”

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