published Monday, January 14th, 2013

Area lawmakers split on aid for Hurricane Sandy victims


by Chris Carroll
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais
Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais made waves this year when he was one of 67 House Republicans to vote against $9.7 billion in federal aid for Hurricane Sandy victims.

But Friday, the Jasper Republican proudly likened that decision to his prior vote against emergency disaster funding after tornadoes killed hundreds across the Southeast in April 2011. DesJarlais supported House legislation that would have provided tornado relief to Tennessee and Georgia residents, but opposed the final version because it included disaster spending without offsetting cuts.

DesJarlais rejected the Sandy measure -- which Congress passed overwhelmingly -- for the same reason: The $9.7 billion wasn't offset. The congressman hasn't decided whether he'll support a larger $51 billion aid package tentatively scheduled for a House vote Tuesday.

"Rep. DesJarlais hopes we'll discover waste, fraud and abuse that can be used to pay for those funds," spokesman Robert Jameson said.

Democrats have criticized that rationale as insensitive, but U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, a North Georgia Republican, also voted against the $9.7 billion for Sandy victims in New York, New Jersey and other states.

"I want the hurricane victims to receive emergency assistance," Graves said in a statement. "[But a] government that spends about $3.7 trillion per year should be responsible enough during a debt crisis to trim spending in other areas to fund emergency assistance."

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican who was born in Manhattan, supported the Sandy funds. His spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the bill coming up Tuesday.

In a statement to Nooga.com, a Fleischmann aide didn't mention belt tightening or deficit spending when asked to explain the Sandy vote. The aide said Fleischmann -- who dubbed himself a "proven conservative" in his re-election effort -- voted for the $9.7 billion as a direct result of seeing Tennessee's disaster problems firsthand.

"In 2011 and 2012, when East Tennessee was hit by devastating tornadoes, our communities received federal assistance to help recover," spokesman Tyler Threadgill said. "Superstorm Sandy was a horrific event, and it will take the area years to rebuild."

DesJarlais and Graves haven't always turned down disaster aid.

On April 30, 2011, three days after tornadoes killed dozens in Tennessee, DesJarlais joined the rest of the Volunteer State's 11-member congressional delegation in a letter asking President Barack Obama to help.

"Federal assistance is critical to help our state and local governments initiate recovery efforts and to start repairing infrastructure," the letter stated.

Weeks after the 2011 storms, Graves encouraged federal help, at one point alerting his constituents on his website they had "ONE WEEK LEFT" to register for disaster assistance.

After more storms battered Tennessee in March 2012, DesJarlais, Fleischmann and four other members of Tennessee's delegation wrote the White House in support of Gov. Bill Haslam's assistance request, which estimated $18 million.

Aides to DesJarlais and Graves stressed that their bosses' advocacy only extended to having the president declare disaster areas -- a designation that released money already included in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's budget.

But the supplementary disaster funds, part of a broader bill that eventually became law, included at least $400 million in new disaster spending without matching cuts. Fleischmann, Graves and DesJarlais all opposed the final legislation.

The bill cleared Congress in November 2011; Tennessee's tornado victims still needed FEMA money for rental housing two weeks before its passage, according to newspaper archives.

Staff writer Ben Benton contributed to this report.

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