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President Obama surveys flood-stricken New Jersey

Sep 4, 2011, 9:40 a.m.
U.S. President Barack Obama gets a hug from a boy upon his arrival in Newark, New Jersey September 4, 2011. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Matt Spetalnick

PATERSON, New Jersey (Reuters) - President Barack Obama traveled to flood-stricken New Jersey Sunday to survey the damage caused by Hurricane Irene.

With rain-swollen rivers receding in the Northeast after the region suffered its worst flooding in decades, Obama arrived for a first-hand look at the disaster response in the working-class city of Paterson, one of the hardest-hit places.

The Democratic president was joined by New Jersey Gov. 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.

Irene cut a swathe 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 that 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 recently fallen on hard times.

Obama officially 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 battle -- and a deepening ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats over the role of government -- could complicate relief efforts.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said it was critical to avoid playing politics with the storm response.

"When disaster strikes, Americans suffer -- not Republicans, not Democrats, not independents -- and we come together," he 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.

He has insisted New Jersey cannot wait while lawmakers in Washington fight over budget offsets. That makes Christie an unlikely ally for Obama, who is seeking re-election next year, in the debate over storm relief.

The Obama administration opposes Cantor's position, and Democrats who oversee disaster funding in the Senate said they would refuse to cut other programs to boost emergency aid.

This comes as lawmakers debate further budget reductions after months of bitter feuding over the country's debt pushed the government to the brink of a shutdown in April and to the edge of a first-ever national default in August.

(Editing by Todd Eastham)

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