For as long as anyone can remember, federal disaster aid has effectively been automatic. It didn’t matter which party controlled which branch; when communities faced emergency conditions after a natural disaster, Washington would act to offer some relief.

Congressional Republicans in 2011 no longer believe in such swift action — — if Democrats want emergency assistance in the wake of a natural disaster, Republicans will insist on attaching some strings to the relief funds. In this case, the strings are cuts elsewhere in the budget.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) made the GOP approach clear months ago, and as Hurricane Irene approached the Atlantic coast, Republican leaders didn’t back off the callous line. Now that the storm has swept through eight states, will GOP lawmakers follow through on their threat and block disaster aid unless their demands are met? Brian Beutler takes a closer look at the “big problem” and says there are three angles to keep an eye on.

First, Republicans have learned an obvious lesson since they retook the House — that they can control the agenda in Washington, and put popular government programs under attack, if and only if they have some leverage over Democrats to play along. The government shutdown fight in April was their first victory. The debt limit showdown was their piece de resistance.

Second, there are political pitfalls to this approach, particularly when it requires Republicans to publicly stake out specific positions. Cutting government spending might focus group well, but privatizing Medicare does not, as Republicans learned quite painfully earlier this year. This augurs for slashing spending in nebulous ways — capping discretionary spending, and spreading the cuts out across myriad federal programs; or promising to “find monies” in the budget to offset new expenses. Death by a thousand, invisible cuts.

Third, the right flank of the Republican Party expects no less. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated southern Louisiana, Cantor’s predecessor, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) claimed Republicans had pared discretionary spending back enough that federal aid could be financed with new debt. He came under attack from members of his own party and quickly reversed himself. Looks like Cantor learned his lesson.

All of this makes a lot of sense, especially the part about leverage. Republicans won’t be too crass publicly, but when it comes to post-hurricane relief, GOP officials will effectively tell Democrats, “We might be willing to help communities ravaged by the storm; we might not. What’s it worth to you?”

But I’d add a fourth angle to watch: whether rank-and-file Republicans are prepared to follow through on this. Over the weekend, Rep. Leonard Lance (R) of New Jersey said Cantor’s approach is the wrong way to go, and he does not expect Congress to hold disaster aid until his party receives a ransom. In May, after Cantor first pushed his ridiculous approach, other Republicans also said the spending-cut demands were wrong.

With Congress’ approval rating in the toilet and the Republicans’ support gradually reaching new depths, how far will the congressional GOP pursue this? Are Republicans seriously prepared to block post-hurricane relief to satisfy some kind of philosophical agenda?

I guess we’ll find out soon enough, but I’m not sure if the answer is obvious. Even the most callous, heartless bastard on Capitol Hill occasionally worries about re-election. Even if Republicans couldn’t care less about damaged communities, whether they’re prepared to face political blowback is less clear.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.