Oklahoma senators embrace disaster aid after opposing Sandy relief bill

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Amid expressions of horror, grief and resolve over the devastating tornado that smashed into suburban Oklahoma City, many United States (US) lawmakers expressed relief on Tuesday that they took action in January to bulk up the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster relief fund.

But Oklahoma's two senators, both Republicans, found themselves in an awkward position for having voted against the US$60 billion (S$75 billion) supplemental appropriation bill that was largely aimed at providing relief to victims of Superstorm Sandy, which slammed into coastal New York and New Jersey last year.

The bill left the disaster fund run by the FEMA with a healthy balance of US$11.6 billion. FEMA spokesman Dan Watson said the amount is sufficient for handling immediate response and recovery efforts in Oklahoma and residual recovery costs associated with Sandy.

In January, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe called the Sandy appropriations bill a "slush fund" because it included long-term infrastructure spending and funding for projects aimed at disasters other than the devastation along the US East Coast.

The measure became embroiled in a tense budget fight over the "fiscal cliff" tax hikes in January and was delayed for several weeks for tempers to cool as FEMA's disaster fund rapidly dwindled.

On Tuesday, a day after a 3km-wide tornado wiped out whole blocks of homes, killed at least 24 people and left thousands homeless in Moore, Oklahoma, Mr Inhofe vowed that Oklahomans in need would not abuse federal disaster aid, as he said had occurred in the aftermath of Sandy.

"That's totally different," Mr Inhofe told cable TV network MSNBC. "Everybody was getting in and exploiting the tragedy that took place. That won't happen in Oklahoma."

Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who also opposed the Sandy appropriation because it was not offset with budget savings elsewhere, pledged to make a similar "pay-for" demand if further disaster funds were needed. For now, however, he was focused on getting aid to the victims.

"As the ranking member of the Senate committee that oversees FEMA, I can assure Oklahomans that any and all available aid will be delivered without delay," Mr Coburn said in a statement.

Representative Tom Cole, the Republican congressman whose district bore the brunt of the tornado - its second major disaster due to a twister in 14 years - had no explaining to do.

He supported the Sandy legislation and pledged whatever resources were necessary to recover and rebuild devastated communities.

Mr Cole, a moderate Republican with a reputation as a pragmatist, earned notoriety during the budget talks late last year as the first member of his party to advocate allowing higher tax rates on the wealthy in order to prevent tax increases on the vast majority of Americans.

As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he also helped trim some provisions from the Sandy bill that were unrelated to that disaster.

"I am confident we will get the help we need to make it through this tragedy. That is what Americans do for other Americans in tough times and challenging circumstances," Mr Cole said in a statement.

Top Senate Democrat Harry Reid and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski, also a Democrat, both pledged that if more money was needed for Oklahoma City, they would take action to fund it.

"This is a time for neighbour helping neighbour. This is not the time for a 'budgeteering' battle. This is a time to respond with compassion and competence," Ms Mikulski of Maryland said in a statement.

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