WASHINGTON — In a prelude to ugly autumn budget fights, the White House and its Republican foes battled Wednesday over whether disaster relief for Hurricane Irene's victims must be offset by spending cuts elsewhere.
The feud, the latest in a running US political war over the role of government, flared up even as both sides agreed it was too early to set a price tag on rebuilding in the wake of the powerful storm and a preceding earthquake.
The dispute arose after Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said that disaster relief money should flow but be paid for with cuts to other programs with cash-strapped Washington's debt now eclipsing $14.3 trillion.
"In instances like this, yes, there's a federal role, yes, we're going to find the money. We're just going to need to make sure that there are savings elsewhere to continue to do so," Cantor told Fox News Channel on Monday.
His remarks drew a sharp response from the White House a day later, with spokesman Jay Carney saying the government's "priority has to be responding to the disaster and then helping those regions and states recover."
"I wish that commitment to looking for offsets had been held by the House majority leader and others, say, during the previous administration when they ran up unprecedented bills and never paid for them," he added.
Carney's words echoed a common Democratic complaint that Republicans added trillions to the government's budget deficits when they held the White House under President Barack Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, then became tight-fisted once the Democrat took office.
At the same time, the spokesman insisted Obama was "very committed to fiscal discipline, and obviously we applaud those who are committed also" and said it was "premature" to put a dollar figure on the amount of relief needed.
"If emergency funding is requested by the president, surely the House will respond appropriately at that time," said Cantor spokeswoman Laena Fallon, who noted "we can't respond to an emergency request that doesn't yet exist."
Fallon said House Republicans would "find ways to pay for what is needed or to find offsets whenever possible" because "that is the responsible thing to do" but stressed that Cantor had said the aid would flow.
In fact, the Republican-led House has already approved annual funding legislation to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) contingency fund, which dipped to below $1 billion earlier this year.
The Democratic-held Senate has yet to act on that measure, in which additional dollars for disaster aid were offset by cuts elsewhere.
Federal officials have joined governors of states hit by the earthquake and Hurricane Irene to survey the damage and draw up estimates of how much aid is needed.
A leading risk-assessment firm, Eqecat, said Wednesday that the storm had caused more than $10 billion in total damages to the United States as it swept across the country's east coast.
The feud foreshadowed coming Washington wars over spending in the next few months, including a catch-all measure to fund the US government through the 2012 fiscal year that begins October 1 and a drive to find more than one trillion dollars in deficit cuts over the next ten years.