Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney holds bags of food as he participates in a campaign event collecting supplies from residents local relief organizations for victims of superstorm Sandy, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, at the James S. Trent Arena in Kettering, Ohio. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
WASHINGTON (AP) — There's nothing like a natural disaster to test the depth of politicians' preference for small government.
And so Mitt Romney found himself on the hot seat after superstorm Sandy battered the East Coast. Only last year, as Romney hewed to the right while battling for the GOP nomination, he appeared to suggest in a debate that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be shuttered and its responsibilities left to the states.
"Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction," Romney said at a debate last year. "And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better."
Asked by moderator John King of CNN whether that would include disaster relief, Romney said: "We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids."
Now, a week before Election Day, in the wake of a massive disaster, Romney's campaign is reassuring voters that his administration wouldn't leave disaster victims in the lurch. The public's attention is locked on the devastation caused by superstorm Sandy at a time when Romney and President Barack Obama are locked in a close presidential campaign. With Obama heavily involved in getting federal funds to those in trouble, the Romney campaign moved quickly to reassure the public it supports a strong program of storm relief.
"A Romney-Ryan administration will always ensure that disaster funding is there for those in need," said campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg. "Period."
Romney's campaign says he's not interested in getting rid of FEMA, though Romney himself ducked a spate of opportunities Tuesday to clarify his position. The campaign instead issued a statement that essentially endorsed the current disaster aid system.
"Gov. Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions," Henneberg said. "As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities, and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA."
But what the campaign wouldn't do is say whether a President Romney would insist that help for disaster victims be funded by cutting other programs in the federal budget.
Running mate Paul Ryan is squarely on the side of cutting other spending to pay for disasters. Earlier this year, he tried but failed to scrap a new system, established in the 2011 debt ceiling-deficit cuts deal, that boosts disaster spending and budgets help for victims of hurricanes, tornadoes and floods before they occur. House leaders rebuffed him, siding with Appropriations Committee members of both parties who like the new system.
What Ryan proposed is that when disaster strikes, lawmakers first scour the rest of the budget for savings to pay for rebuilding homes, roads and schools and helping small businesses.
That's easier said than done, especially since it can mean delays in getting aid out the door. Disasters like Hurricane Katrina — and perhaps Sandy — can prove so costly that it's simply impracticable to find cuts in other programs big enough to pay for the aid.
As has been shown time after time — especially as tornadoes and hurricanes rip through politically conservative states — even the sturdiest tea party supporters become fans of government when it's doling out money to storm victims for motel rooms and other temporary housing or helping with house repairs.
That role fell Tuesday to New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie, who was effusive in his praise for Obama and the federal government's initial response.
"The president has been outstanding in this and so have the folks at FEMA," Christie said on NBC's "Today."
It'll take several weeks to come up with damage cost estimates to determine whether FEMA's main disaster account will need more money.
FEMA has enough cash available to deal with immediate disaster relief, almost $8 billion, thanks to a six-month government funding bill passed in September and the new disaster financing system.
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