WASHINGTON — The Federal Emergency Management Agency is running out of disaster relief money and finds itself operating in a new political and fiscal climate that may be as treacherous as some of the emergencies to which it must respond.
In the next few weeks, the agency faces the prospect of trying to respond to disasters in several states without enough funding because a newly cost-conscious Congress is reluctant to spend money on anything — including disasters — without offsetting it with cuts elsewhere.
If Congress cannot agree on a way to refill the disaster fund for this year, it could mean pitting victims of Irene against those who suffered in previous disasters, including the deadly tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., in May. That prospect makes lawmakers nervous and could create some momentum for a resolution.
"Recovery from hurricane damage on the East Coast must not come at the expense of Missouri's rebuilding efforts," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Monday in a statement. "If FEMA can't fulfill its promise to our state because we have other disasters, that's unacceptable."
Republicans, who control the House and have driven hard bargains on spending cuts all year, have insisted that there will be enough money for disaster relief. But they also pledged that additional spending will mean cuts in other areas.
"Yes, we're going to find the money," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Monday in a television interview.
Although the Republican position is not new, the argument may be trickier to make with regard to disaster relief, a subject that generally transcends partisan boundaries.
Of the $130 billion in disaster-relief funding approved since 1990, $110 billion came in supplemental emergency spending. But the ongoing disputes over deficit reduction and spending cuts threaten what is a routine annual exercise to replenish FEMA's coffers.
The White House is yet to request supplemental dollars for the year.
House Republicans tucked $1 billion in additional funding for this year into a spending measure that includes $2.65 billion in disaster-relief funding for fiscal 2012. The figure exceeds the $1.8 billion that President Obama requested for the next fiscal year, a move congressional Republicans said they took to avoid having to come up with more emergency dollars later.
But in doing so, Republicans shifted money from a program that loans money to auto manufacturers to build more energy-efficient cars and cut dollars from other FEMA programs. Both ideas are unacceptable to Senate Democrats.
In a July letter, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., wrote: "Does it really make sense to pay response and reconstruction costs for past disasters by reducing our capacity to prepare for or respond to future disasters?"