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Oklahoma twister spawns political firestorm in Washington

Published time: May 21, 2013 09:48
AFP Photo / Tim Sloan

AFP Photo / Tim Sloan

A political storm has already broken out over the Capitol as Democrats and Republicans attempt to advance their agendas in the wake of the devastating tornado that ravaged parts of Oklahoma on Monday.

After the mile-wide tornado – which focused much of its fury on the town of Moore, on the outskirts of Oklahoma City – cleared, a bipartisan battle erupted in Washington in what appears to be political posturing at the worst possible moment.

What do you get when you take one monster twister, drop it into a staunchly conservative red state and mix it up with the political ideology of a Democratic leader at the helm in the White House? A lot of self-righteous politicizing at a time when people are still trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings.

Tom Coburn, a Republican senator of Oklahoma, said his tornado-ravaged state, where at last count 91 people had died, should not receive federal emergency aid until an equal amount of budget cuts are made in Washington.

According to CQ Roll Call, Coburn said it is too early to put a price tag on the Oklahoma disaster, but that he “knows for certain” he will oppose any disaster funding that the federal government offers until he knows that it is paid for.

Coburn, incidentally, was one of 36 Republican senators who voted against disaster funding for superstorm Sandy in October 2012, which caused $71 billion in damage across 24 states.

Coburn’s spokesperson John Hart said the Republican representative "makes no apologies for voting against disaster aid bills that are often poorly conceived and used to finance priorities that have little to do with disasters."

While Republicans continue to dance around the polarizing issue of climate change, Democrats are taking advantage of each devastating storm to chastise conservatives.

Some would argue they have a case: In 2011, the United States witnessed its second-deadliest tornado season in history, when some 1,700 tornadoes killed 553 people. The Joplin, Missouri, monster was the single deadliest tornado in US history, killing 158 people and causing $2.8 billion in damage.

The following year, 2012, saw tornado season starting earlier and busier than usual. Through April there were twice as many tornadoes as normal, after which the twisters suddenly disappeared. Canada, meanwhile, experienced an unusual number of tornadoes in 2012.

Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse took to the Senate floor to rail against his Republican colleagues for denying “the science of climate change,” telling the GOP senators that when it comes to natural disasters “we are in this together.”

“So, you may have a question for me,” Whitehouse said. “Why do you care? Why do you, Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, care if we Republicans run off the climate cliff like a bunch of proverbial lemmings and disgrace ourselves? I’ll tell you why. We’re stuck in this together. We are stuck in this together.”

“When cyclones tear up Oklahoma and hurricanes swamp Alabama and wildfires scorch Texas, you come to us, the rest of the country, for billions of dollars to recover,” he continued. “And the damage that your polluters and deniers are doing doesn’t just hit Oklahoma and Alabama and Texas. It hits Rhode Island with floods and storms. It hits Oregon with acidified seas, it hits Montana with dying forests.”

The Democrat then delivered a thinly veiled attack on the Tea Party, referring to them as the “extremist” faction of the GOP base: “I don’t want a Republican Party disgraced, that let its extremists run off the cliff, and an America suffering from grave economic and environmental and diplomatic damage because we failed, because we didn’t wake up and do our duty to our people, and because we didn’t lead the world.”

The political posturing displayed by Coburn and Whitehouse at a time of national disaster shows that with each new deadly storm there will continue to be heat in Washington.

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