Obama vows federal help for Irene victims
PATERSON, New Jersey (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama on Sunday urged Republicans not to play politics with federal disaster aid as he toured flood-stricken New Jersey and pledged to do everything possible to help states recover after Hurricane Irene.
With rain-swollen rivers receding in the Northeast after the region suffered its worst flooding in decades, Obama was greeted by cheering crowds of several thousand people lining the streets of the working-class city of Paterson, one of hardest-hit from the storm.
The Democratic president was joined in his first look at the storm damage by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a budget-cutting Republican who has bucked some of his party’s fiscal hawks in Washington by calling for expedited federal aid to help his state’s recovery.
Standing on a bridge over the rain-swollen Passaic River in central Paterson, Obama noted there had been a talk of a slowdown in aid and dismissed that, promising: “We are going to meet our federal obligations.”
“The last thing that residents … need is Washington politics getting in the way of making sure we’re doing what we can,” said Obama, who did not mention Republicans by name.
Earlier, Obama consoled homeowners at his first stop in a poor neighborhood in the town of Wayne, telling them the federal government would do everything possible to help them.
“I know it’s a hard time right now,” Obama told a group of residents clustered around him on the street. “You guys hang in there. We’ll do everything we can to help you.”
Irene cut a swath of destruction from North Carolina to Vermont and was blamed for at least 40 deaths. Total economic losses have been estimated at more than $10 billion.
New Jersey was especially hammered by flooding in the storm’s wake last week. The floodwaters swept away homes, swamped roads and bridges and left hundreds of thousands without electricity.
Paterson now faces a massive cleanup after the Passaic River overflowed its banks in the center of the city of 150,000, dealing the latest blow to a one-time industrial powerhouse that has fallen on hard times.
Obama declared New Jersey a disaster area on Wednesday, making the state eligible for federal disaster aid.
He is expected to ask Congress for extra funds to help recover from Irene, but Washington’s unrelenting budget battles — and a deepening ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats over the role of government — could complicate relief efforts.
“When disaster strikes, Americans suffer — not Republicans, not Democrats, not independents — and we come together,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling with Obama.
Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House of Representatives, said last week that any new disaster aid must be offset with spending cuts elsewhere to avoid adding to the budget deficit, projected to hit $1.3 trillion this year.
But Christie, a rising Republican star and blunt-talking fiscal conservative who has repeatedly denied any interest in seeking his party’s 2012 presidential nomination, has called for immediate assistance for his state.
He has insisted that New Jersey cannot wait while lawmakers in Washington fight over budget offsets.
That makes Christie an unlikely ally for Obama, who is seeking re-election next year, in the debate over storm relief. The two men shook hands warmly at the bottom of Air Force One’s staircase and then boarded a presidential helicopter for an aerial tour of the storm damage.
The Obama administration opposes Cantor’s position, and Democrats who oversee disaster funding in the Senate said they would refuse to cut other programs to boost emergency aid.
Asked about Cantor’s push for budget offsets, Obama said, “we are going to make sure that the resources are here.”
Lawmakers are debating further budget reductions after months of bitter feuding over the country’s debt pushed the government to the brink of a shutdown in April and to the edge of a first-ever national default in August.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has suspended funding for some rebuilding programs from earlier disasters to ensure that its disaster-relief fund will not run out of money, agency administrator Craig Fugate has said.
Cantor and other Republicans have made spending cuts a top priority since winning control of the House in November and have sought to challenge Obama and his Democrats on fiscal matters.
The White House has worked to show it has learned the lessons of the bungled handling of Hurricane Katrina under the administration of former President George W. Bush. Aides have portrayed Obama as deeply engaged in the Irene response.
The trip was Obama’s first since October to New Jersey, a state he won handily in the 2008 election and hopes to keep in his camp for 2012 re-election bid.
But even as Obama visited New Jersey, his administration’s emergency planners were keeping an eye on Tropical Storm Lee, threatening New Orleans and other parts of the U.S. Gulf of Mexico coast with heavy rains, high tides and flooding.