As Idalia hits, tensions grow over White House pairing FEMA funding to Ukraine aid

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The federal government may need more money to respond to the sheer number of natural disasters occurring this year, Biden administration officials said this week, as Hurricane Idalia devastated the Florida coast and Hawaii continued its recovery from historic fires on Maui.

But the administration’s request to Congress proposed earlier this month already ties supplemental disaster relief funding with more assistance for Ukraine — a pairing that could slow down or even jeopardize both requests amid Republican infighting over continued support for Kyiv.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican and a supporter of continuing aid to Ukraine, called on the administration to propose immediate supplemental aid for disaster relief as Idalia was passing through Florida on Wednesday morning.

“No matter how anybody feels about Ukraine funding, those two things should never be one for the other,” Rubio said. “When it comes to taking care of Americans in harm, that should be priority.”

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, also a Republican, said that Biden was “playing politics” by pairing the two requests and that he would propose an immediate supplemental package for the Federal Emergency Management Agency once Congress reconvenes from summer recess next week.

READ MORE: Biden lauds DeSantis as two leaders work to boost Idalia recovery efforts

FEMA currently has $3.4 billion in its disaster relief fund, and is requesting an additional $12 billion for the rest of the year. Hurricane and wildfire seasons traditionally run through summer and fall, but climate change has worsened the length and the intensity of both.

The Biden administration is also asking for $24 billion in further aid to Ukraine.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, a Democrat, has said he supports the administration’s proposal as it is currently written and will work to get it passed. Schumer has already consulted Hawaii’s two Democratic senators, Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, on the supplemental requests, he said. Neither has not called for the two requests to be decoupled.

A White House official told McClatchy that the supplemental request — similar to past requests — reflects urgent needs “both with respect to national security and critical domestic areas like disaster relief.”

The official noted that both disaster relief and support for the defense of democracy in Ukraine have strong bipartisan support.

Bundling various funding proposals into one supplemental package is not uncommon for administrations to request or for Congress to pass. But a growing divide among Republicans over whether to continue support for Ukraine in its war effort could slow down or jeopardize the FEMA request.

READ MORE: High stakes for Gulf Coast, Ron DeSantis as Idalia approaches Florida

“The administration is requesting supplemental security, economic, and humanitarian assistance funding that would support Ukraine, as well as countries and vulnerable populations worldwide impacted by Russia’s unprovoked and brutal invasion of Ukraine,” reads an Aug. 10 letter from Shalanda Young, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

“Second, the president has an ironclad commitment to supporting communities across the Nation as they recover from disasters,” the letter continues. “Catastrophic weather and climate disasters in the United States caused more than $170.5 billion in damages last year alone.”

President Joe Biden suggested he knows a battle lies ahead on Capitol Hill over the request in remarks from the White House on Wednesday, warning Republican lawmakers he would place responsibility on them if disaster relief funds run dry.

“How can we not respond? My God. How can we not respond to these needs?” Biden said. “I’m confident, even though there’s a lot of talk from some of our friends up on the Hill about the cost, we have to do it. This is the United States of America.”

READ MORE: Hurricane Idalia’s flood and storm surge in Florida were caught on video. Take a look

Asked whether the White House would continue pairing the two requests, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Tuesday she would not engage in “hypotheticals.”

“The president has made it very clear what he is asking from Congress as it relates to the supplemental,” Jean-Pierre said.

“I’m just not going to get into hypotheticals of what the Congress might present,” she added. “What we have asked for is incredibly important. And so we’re going to continue to have those conversations.”