Americans who saw their homes flooded, streets ripped apart and businesses disrupted by last weekend's hurricane are about to face another storm: a new congressional battle as House Republican leaders seek to match any additional spending for disaster relief with equal cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.
Unless additional disaster aid is appropriated, federal officials said communities trying to rebuild from natural disasters this year in the Midwest and South will have to wait while funds are diverted to help victims of Hurricane Irene.
The recent string of disasters, including a tornado that tore through Joplin, Mo., and a flood that inundated Minot, N.D., is running into the same political buzz saw that nearly forced the government into default during the bitter fight over the debt ceiling this summer.
The federal budget fight has largely focused so far on gargantuan sums and giant bureaucracies. The dispute could hit home in a real way now, affecting families whose homes or livelihoods were destroyed.
Congress doesn't return until next week, but the battle was joined Monday when House Republican leaders called for cuts to offset any new spending for disaster relief and reconstruction.
Democrats immediately resisted what they called an unfair and unprecedented approach to emergency management.
The House and Senate are headed toward a showdown as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund runs out of money, possibly as soon as next month.
"We will find the money if there is a need for additional money, but those monies are not unlimited," Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, told Fox News. "We'll find other places to save so that we can fund the role the federal government needs to play."
Cantor's district in central Virginia was the epicenter of a magnitude 5.8 earthquake that rumbled up the Eastern Seaboard last Tuesday. The quake rattled nerves and buildings, but caused little damage.
Hurricane Irene, which eventually was downgraded to a tropical storm, was less fierce than originally feared. But the wind and rain are believed to have caused billions of dollars in damage.
"Now is not the time for another round of budget politics," said Rep. David Price of North Carolina, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security appropriations subcommittee.
"Livelihoods and local economies depend on swift relief and assistance in the event of a natural disaster, and the millions of Americans affected by Irene and other recent events can't afford to wait around while Republicans pick another budget fight with the president by holding disaster relief hostage to further spending cuts."
President Obama, speaking at the White House, promised the federal government would help communities affected by the storm.
"We're going to make sure folks have all the support they need as they begin to assess and repair the damage left by the storm," Obama said.
Federal disaster assistance helps in ways large and small — including covering the rent for those who lost their homes and rebuilding roads, schools and libraries.