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Obama vows federal help for Irene victims

Sep 4, 2011, 10:57 p.m.
U.S. President Barack Obama holds hands with a woman as he tours damage caused by the rain-swollen Passaic River in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in Wayne, New Jersey September 4, 2011. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Matt Spetalnick

PATERSON, New Jersey (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Sunday urged Republicans not to play politics with federal disaster aid as he toured flood-stricken New Jersey and pledged to do everything possible to help states recover after Hurricane Irene.

With rain-swollen rivers receding in the Northeast after the region suffered its worst flooding in decades, Obama was greeted by cheering crowds of several thousand people lining the streets of the working-class city of Paterson, one of hardest-hit from the storm.

The Democratic president was joined in his first look at the storm damage by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a budget-cutting Republican who has bucked some of his party's fiscal hawks in Washington by calling for expedited federal aid to help his state's recovery.

Standing on a bridge over the rain-swollen Passaic River in central Paterson, Obama noted there had been a talk of a slowdown in aid and dismissed that, promising: "We are going to meet our federal obligations."

"The last thing that residents ... need is Washington politics getting in the way of making sure we're doing what we can," said Obama, who did not mention Republicans by name.

Earlier, Obama consoled homeowners at his first stop in a poor neighborhood in the town of Wayne, telling them the federal government would do everything possible to help them.

"I know it's a hard time right now," Obama told a group of residents clustered around him on the street. "You guys hang in there. We'll do everything we can to help you."

Irene cut a swath of destruction from North Carolina to Vermont and was blamed for at least 40 deaths. Total economic losses have been estimated at more than $10 billion.

New Jersey was especially hammered by flooding in the storm's wake last week. The floodwaters swept away homes, swamped roads and bridges and left hundreds of thousands without electricity.

Paterson now faces a massive cleanup after the Passaic River overflowed its banks in the center of the city of 150,000, dealing the latest blow to a one-time industrial powerhouse that has fallen on hard times.

Obama declared New Jersey a disaster area on Wednesday, making the state eligible for federal disaster aid.

He is expected to ask Congress for extra funds to help recover from Irene, but Washington's unrelenting budget battles -- and a deepening ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats over the role of government -- could complicate relief efforts.

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"When disaster strikes, Americans suffer -- not Republicans, not Democrats, not independents -- and we come together," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling with Obama.

Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House of Representatives, said last week that any new disaster aid must be offset with spending cuts elsewhere to avoid adding to the budget deficit, projected to hit $1.3 trillion this year.

But Christie, a rising Republican star and blunt-talking fiscal conservative who has repeatedly denied any interest in seeking his party's 2012 presidential nomination, has called for immediate assistance for his state.

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