UPDATE – Republican agrees to stop blocking FEMA nominee

Published 3:50 am Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Louisiana Republican agreed Tuesday to stop blocking the White House’s pick to lead FEMA amid bipartisan criticism that he was leaving the agency vulnerable just a few weeks away from hurricane season.

Sen. David Vitter had put a hold on confirming Craig Fugate at the Federal Emergency Management Agency until FEMA officials provided answers on several lingering questions involving Hurricane Katrina rebuilding.

His delay won support from some local officials and the Louisiana Floodplain Management Association, who want FEMA to take a second look at parts of southern Louisiana that have been labeled high-risk flood zones ineligible for rebuilding funds.

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But with hurricane season starting June 1, Vitter was drawing growing criticism from groups such as International Association of Emergency Managers and the American Red Cross, as well as Republican lawmakers and the White House. The tactic also had become an issue in Vitter’s 2010 re-election bid, with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee accusing him of recklessly using the issue to draw attention to his campaign.

Under Senate rules, any senator can place what’s known as a “hold” on a presidential nomination. The hold doesn’t kill the nomination, but it can delay confirmation for weeks or longer by forcing time-consuming votes.

After meeting with FEMA officials last week, Vitter agreed to relent if he got written confirmation that the agency is working in good faith to resolve his concerns, and that FEMA would keep him updated at least every two weeks until the issues are resolved.

In a letter Monday, acting FEMA administrator Nancy Ward said the agency would work toward finding a “reasonable resolution” with him and other Louisiana lawmakers who have expressed concerns.

She stopped short of committing to the state’s requests, however.

“We understand that prompt action is necessary due to the impact that delays can have on affected individuals and communities,” Ward wrote. But, “the need for quick action must be balanced with the need for FEMA to follow the laws written by Congress, as well as its own regulations.”

Vitter — who has pressed specifically for rebuilding several community facilities in the small barrier island of Grand Isle, La. — said Tuesday that Ward’s assurances were enough to break the impasse.

“I’m very confident based on their written commitment that the … issue will be solved soon so that crucial infrastructure and facilities can be rebuilt,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the new FEMA administrator on that and much more.”

Fugate, a former Florida emergency management chief, otherwise has broad bipartisan support. He is expected to win quick confirmation.