U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-KLa., found herself in a familiar spot over the last few weeks, standing on the U.S. Senate floor shouting for billions of dollars.
The third-term senator doesn’t talk in millions but billions — with a “b” — getting rolling eyes from the press corps: “There she goes again.”
The stance took observers back to 2005 when Landrieu commandeered the U.S. Senate floor pushing for tens of billions for Hurricane Katrina relief.
This time, Landrieu was pleading for money to replenish the nation’s Disaster Relief Fund. Since February, Landrieu has been warning President Barack Obama and her Senate colleagues that the money used to respond to the nation’s disasters was running dangerously low.
And that was before Hurricane Irene ravaged the East Coast.
Landrieu chairs the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. In her role, Landrieu oversees funding the Federal Emergency Management Agency that handles the Disaster Relief Fund.
In addition to experiencing the fallout from Katrina, Landrieu is the former chair of the Senate’s Disaster Recovery Subcommittee.
So Landrieu last week took her take-no-prisoners style to the Senate floor to make what sounded like a closing argument on why more disaster relief money was necessary. At issue was whether Congress should require that $3.65 billion to FEMA be “offset” by first mandating that the money be found in other parts of the federal budget.
The idea was a new one, and in Landrieu’s eyes, a bad one. For three decades, disaster emergency money was granted by the president, who sent an emergency spending bill to Congress.
“Let’s not go down this dangerous, dangerous and inappropriate road,” Landrieu told her colleagues.
The battle was similar to the one played out last summer when Republicans fought to block a raise in the national debt ceiling, also traditionally made without fanfare.
Described by a Democratic Senate colleague as the “major general” for the push, Landrieu wasted little time pointing the finger at House Republicans for reducing the $6.9 billion she was able to secure in the Senate earlier in the month.
Landrieu took the game directly to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who she blamed for initiating the offset call, a development she kept referring to as “the Cantor Doctrine.”
Landrieu also took a swipe at tea parties, blaming the activists for fueling the cost-cutting maneuvers.
“I’m telling every Republican in the House, you better think carefully about this vote,” Landrieu said.
Landrieu saved some for her Republican Senate colleagues.
“If you’re going to vote for the House position on this, please don’t go home and try to pat yourself on the back and say, you took care of the disaster victims,” Landrieu said. “You might have filled up the FEMA fund temporarily, but you have not left here doing the job that I think we need to do.”
Even Louisiana Republicans weren’t spared. Landrieu criticized as hypocritical their vote for the offsets, while earlier hailing the program that was to be gutted, a fuel-efficient car loan program that a company applied for to build a plant in Monroe.
“They write letters, and then they come to Washington and cut the program,” Landrieu said.
Landrieu has warned Senate colleagues that she was willing to shut down the chamber to secure the funding, something she has done in the past but backed away from doing during this argument.
Landrieu noted that Congress sent $66 billion to the South after Hurricane Katrina and $40 billion to New York after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 — without offsets.
She said the Iraq and Afghanistan war spending was also funded by emergency spending legislation sent to Congress — without offsets.
In the end, FEMA had enough money to get through the week, which was the end of the fiscal year. That allowed U.S. Senate leaders to avoid the disaster-fund predicament, by taking the U.S. House’s $2.65 billion proposal, which was less $1 billion in emergency funding that was to take FEMA through the end of the year.
Landrieu called the battle important.
“Every now and then, it’s a good thing to stand up for principle,” Landrieu said. “And I think this is a principle worth standing for and fighting for.”
Gerard Shields is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. His email address is GerardShields@aol.com.