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EDITORIAL: Decouple disaster relief and Ukraine aid

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before,” Rahm Emanuel, who was Barack Obama’s chief of staff at the time, said in 2008. Unfortunately, that cynical advice has become standard operating procedure in Washington, D.C.

President Joe Biden recently proposed sending $16 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund. The money would supplement what Congress already gave the agency for this fiscal year. As of Sept. 1, it had $3.4 billion left in this fund. The agency is concerned, however, about running out of money as it deals with the aftermath of some major natural disasters.

That includes the Hawaii wildfires, which killed more than 100 people. FEMA estimates it will cost more than $5 billion to reconstruct the burned-out town of Lahaina. Hurricane Idalia hit Florida last week. The damage it caused may reach $20 billion. There have also been a number of smaller disasters, such as major flooding this summer in Montpelier, Vermont.

Disaster relief isn’t controversial. Americans have long grown accustomed to a federal response in situations like these. But to only ask for disaster aid would be letting a crisis go to waste.

That’s why Mr. Biden is seeking to combine that request with $24 billion in new aid for Ukraine. That proposal has much less support than disaster relief. A recent CNN poll found a majority of the public opposes sending Ukraine more money. Many congressional Republicans are skeptical as well.

Putting both proposals in one bill gives Mr. Biden and Democrats a rhetorical club to attack Republicans who would consider opposing it. If a GOP elected officials objects, they can accuse him or her of voting against disaster relief even though their real objection was the Ukrainian aid.

That politically convenient dishonesty also allows Mr. Biden to avoid making the case for continuing to fund the Ukraine war. The American public needs to hear a robust discussion on that, especially on what a plausible resolution looks like. The notion that Russia will secede all the territory it took during the Obama administration is fanciful. Allowing Russian dictator Vladimir Putin to save face after being humiliated on the world stage is likely to be an unsatisfying necessity. Regardless, that debate is much more complicated than the need to shore up FEMA’s disaster relief fund.

On Wednesday, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., introduced a standalone bill to provide disaster relief. Congress should pass that bill immediately, paving the way for a much-needed debate on Ukraine.

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