The House began debate Tuesday on a $50.7 billion Superstorm Sandy aid package that Northeast lawmakers hoped could be approved despite attempts by fiscal conservatives to eliminate unrelated projects and to gain offsetting spending cuts to cover the costs of the bill. Amendments offered by opponents of full funding set up a faceoff as the House moved toward votes on the emergency spending package, with Northeast lawmakers in both parties eager to provide recovery aid for one of the worst storms ever to strike the region.
“I urge my colleagues to show fundamental humanity and pass the bill today,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., noting it has been more than seven weeks since the storm struck.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., complained that billions of dollars would go for projects that are not urgently needed.
“It’s supposed to be for emergency repairs,” said McClintock.
The base $17 billion bill by the House Appropriations Committee is aimed at immediate Sandy recovery needs, including $5.4 billion for New York and New Jersey transit systems and $5.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief aid fund.
Northeast lawmakers will have a chance to add to that bill with an amendment by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., for an additional $33.7 billion, including $10.9 billion for public transportation projects.
The Club for Growth, a conservative group, is urging lawmakers to oppose both Sandy aid measures. Sandy aid supporters, nonetheless, voiced confidence Monday they would prevail. The Senate passed a $60.4 billion Sandy aid package in December with bipartisan support.
Lawmakers emerging from a private meeting of House Democrats Tuesday morning said they were urged to support the bill despite imperfections.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said after a private meeting of House Democrats Tuesday morning that he believed the full Sandy measure would pass. He said he was expecting about 50 Republican votes for the $33 billion portion of the measure, and he said he believed the votes would be there for the $17 billion portion and to defeat a GOP across-the-board spending cut amendment as well.
“I think we’ll be all right,” he said.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said Congress had waited far too long to act, 79 days after the storm struck.
“It is imperative that we pass this package today,” said Lowey.
The House will consider 13 amendments, including one requiring spending offsets and four seeking to strike money for some projects either not directly related to Sandy or not seen as emergency spending.
As with past natural disasters, the $50.7 billion Sandy aid package does not provide for offsetting spending cuts, meaning the aid comes at the cost of higher deficits. The lone exception is an offset provision in the Frelinghuysen amendment requiring that the $3.4 billion for Army Corps of Engineers projects to protect against future storms be paid for by spending cuts elsewhere in the 2013 budget.
Sandy aid supporters are most concerned about the amendment by conservative Reps. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., Tom McClintock, R-Calif., Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., and Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., to offset the $17 billion base bill with spending cuts of 1.6 percent for all discretionary appropriations for 2013.
Northeast lawmakers said passage of the Mulvaney amendment could complicate prospects for quick action on the broader Sandy aid package in the Senate, which has passed a $60.4 billion aid package with bipartisan support that does not have offsetting spending cuts.
Mulvaney said he wasn’t trying to torpedo the aid package with his amendment.
“This is not a poison pill,” he said. “It’s not designed for delay. … I just want to try and find a way to pay for” Sandy aid.
Other amendments set for floor debate would cut $150 million for Regional Ocean Partnership Grants, $13 million for the National Weather Service ground readiness project, $1 million for the Legal Services Corporation and $9.8 million for rebuilding seawalls and buildings on uninhabited islands in the Steward McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in Connecticut.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, planned votes on both the $17 billion base bill and the Frelinghuysen proposal for $33.7 billion more. He’s responding both to conservatives who are opposed to more deficit spending, and to pointed criticism from Govs. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., and Chris Christie, R-N.J., who are fuming because the House hasn’t acted sooner.
Boehner decided on New Year’s Day to delay a scheduled vote after House Republicans rebelled over a bill allowing taxes to rise on families making more than $450,000 a year because it included only meager spending cuts. Christie called the speaker’s action “disgusting.”
The Senate’s $60.4 billion bill on Sandy relief expired with the previous Congress on Jan. 3. But about $9.7 billion was money for replenishing the government’s flood insurance fund to help pay Sandy victims, and Congress approved that separately earlier this month. Whatever emerges from the House this week is scheduled for debate in the Senate next week after President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
FEMA has spent about $3.1 billion in disaster relief money for shelters, restoring power and other immediate needs after the storm pounded the Atlantic Coast with hurricane-force winds. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were the hardest hit.
How the funding could be approved
The House on Tuesday was considering a $50.7 billion package of recovery and related aid for Superstorm Sandy and other disasters. It is divided into two parts: a $17 billion base bill for immediate recovery needs from the late October storm, and a $33.7 billion amendment for longer-term recovery efforts and projects to curb damages from future disasters.
A look at its main provisions:
—$5.4 billion for New York and New Jersey transit systems.
—$5.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief aid fund.
—$1.35 billion for Army Corps of Engineers projects.
— $3.9 billion for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s community development fund for Sandy recovery projects.
—$235 million for repairs and renovations at Veterans Affairs Department facilities.
—$143 million to the Coast Guard for damages by Sandy.
LONGER-TERM AID AMENDMENT
—$10.9 billion for New York and New Jersey transit system recovery projects.
—$12.1 billion for Housing and Urban Development Department community block grants for Sandy and other federally declared disasters in 2011-2013.
—$3.4 billion for Army Corps of Engineer projects for Sandy-related damage and protections against future storms.
— $2 billion for the Federal Highway Administration’s emergency relief program to repair storm-damaged federal highways.
—$290 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, much of it for programs and equipment to improve weather forecasting.