Oklahoma tornado: Obama pledges speedy aid, prayers, as wrangling begins

Washington's response to a devastating tornado that hit Oklahoma includes speedy help, statements of support ... and political wrangling among Republicans about how to pay for relief aid.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama, accompanied by, from left, Vice President Joe Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino. talks about the Oklahoma tornado and severe weather, Tuesday, May 21, 2013, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington.

Washington is responding to the devastating tornado that hit Moore, Okla., on Monday with speedy aid, statements of support, and political maneuvering.

President Obama, who signed a disaster declaration for the area Monday night, promised Tuesday morning that federal disaster representatives already in place in Oklahoma will remain on the ground "beside them as long as it takes."  

"Our prayers are with the people of Oklahoma today," Mr. Obama said, speaking to the nation from the State Dining Room in the White House. He told state residents, “You will not travel that path [to recovery] alone. Your country will travel it with you, fueled by our faith in the Almighty and our faith in one another.”

After President George W. Bush was excoriated in 2005 for the federal government’s slow response to hurricane Katrina, the premium in Washington has been on speedy response to natural disasters. Thus, well before the tornado struck the suburbs south of Oklahoma City, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had on Sunday dispatched a liaison officer to Oklahoma’s emergency operations center, given the forecasts of severe weather. 

Monday afternoon, FEMA activated a national center that coordinates the federal response to natural disasters, dispatched a team to Oklahoma’s emergency operations center, and deployed urban search and rescue teams. Early Tuesday, the president sent FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to Oklahoma to coordinate federal help.

Obama also said he had spoken with Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) and Glenn Lewis, mayor of Moore, the town hardest-hit by the severe weather system that appears to have staked out a position in the region, refusing to move on. The president's response drew appreciation early Tuesday from US Rep. Tom Cole (R), who grew up in and now represents Moore. Congressman Cole told National Public Radio that Obama had phoned him to convey his support and to outline the US government’s response to the disaster. Cole’s wife, Ellen, and son, Mason, were in town when the tornado struck, and Cole reported that they are safe and well. 

Although the disaster is only hours old, federal aid for Oklahoma is already a political controversy, notes NBC’s First Read newsletter. Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma is calling for budget cuts elsewhere to offset the cost of disaster relief in his home state.

“He’ll ask his colleagues to help Oklahoma by setting priorities and sacrificing less vital areas of the budget,” Coburn spokesman John Hart told Politico.  

Senator Coburn was one of 36 Republican senators who in January voted against federal disaster relief funding for superstorm Sandy, which hit New York and New Jersey in September, reminds Emily Pierce of CQ Roll Call. Oklahoma’s other senator, James Inhofe, and three of the state's five congressmen also voted no on federal Sandy relief.

Cole, for is part, voted yes. “Keep an eye on Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) in this. He has been a bridge between the establishment and conservatives on issues like Sandy relief and the fiscal cliff. He’s got a lot of credibility with a bipartisan swath of members, and he may end up having to do a lot of political legwork to de-politicize this issue,” says NBC’s political team.

How to pay for disaster aid is an issue that exposes divisions within the GOP. Rep. Harold Rogers (R) of Kentucky, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday morning that he does not favor identifying spending cuts to offset the cost of relief for Oklahoma. According to Politico, Representative Rogers told a small group of reporters, “I really don’t think disasters of this type should be offset.” He added: “We have an obligation to help those people. We’ll worry about our budgetary items back here, but the aid has to be there."

In a statement, House Speaker John Boehner said, “Our hearts and our prayers go out to those in Oklahoma who have been victimized by this storm, especially our colleague Tom Cole. Moore, Oklahoma is his hometown, so obviously he’s there, and so I’ve ordered the flags this morning to be lowered to half-staff in honor of those who’ve suffered through this terrible storm.” Mr. Boehner’s statement did not address whether he favored offsetting budget cuts to pay for assistance. 

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