By ANDREW MIGA | AP
WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Senate on Friday approved a $60.4 billion emergency spending aid package for victims of Hurricane Sandy that had been backed by Senate Democrats.
Democrats had to turn back Republican efforts to cut programs such as $150 million in fisheries aid that Republican lawmakers said was unrelated to the storm that hammered the East Coast late in October. The measure cleared the Senate on a 62-32 vote, with 12 Republicans supporting the bill. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., was the only Democrat to vote against the bill, but he later switched his vote to support the measure.
The bill faces uncertain prospects in the House, where GOP leaders appear reluctant to move quickly on a big spending bill in the final days of a lame duck session. Congress' attention is focused on talks over the so-called fiscal cliff of tax hikes and automatic spending cuts.
Sandy was blamed for at least 120 deaths and battered coastline areas from North Carolina to Maine. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were the hardest hit states and suffered high winds, flooding and storm surges. Sandy damaged or destroyed more than 72,000 homes and businesses in New Jersey. In New York, 305,000 housing units were damaged or destroyed and more than 265,000 businesses were affected.
Senate Republicans failed on an amendment for a smaller package of about $24 billion in aid for Sandy, which was the most costly natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and one of the worst storms ever in the Northeast.
House GOP leaders have not said how they plan to proceed. But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky has said Congress should probably begin with a smaller aid package for immediate recovery needs and wait until more data can be collected about storm damage before approving additional money next year.
Rep. Paul Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee and a leading House fiscal conservative, has criticized the Democratic bill as "packed with funding for unrelated items, such as commercial fisheries in American Samoa and roof repair of museums in Washington, D.C."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., urged House leaders to "put this bill on the floor quickly and allow a vote." If the House balks, Schumer said, the Senate bill provides "very good groundwork" for seeking Sandy aid next year.
The measure includes $11.5 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's chief disaster relief fund and $17 billion for community development block grants, much of which would help homeowners repair or replace their homes. Another $11.7 billion would help repair New York City's subways and other mass transit damage and protect them from future storms. Some $9.7 billion would go toward the government's flood insurance program. The Army Corps of Engineers would receive $5.3 billion to mitigate flood future risks and rebuild damaged projects.
Senate Republicans said much of the spending in the Democratic bill was for projects unrelated to Sandy, such as $150 million for fisheries disasters that could go to Alaska as well as Gulf Coast and New England states. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., sought to strip the fisheries funding, but his amendment failed.
To court votes, Democrats last week broadened some of their bill's provisions to cover damage from Hurricane Isaac, which struck the Gulf Coast earlier this year. A provision was added to the $2.9 billion allotted to Army Corps of Engineers projects to reduce future flooding risks; the coverage area for that program will now include areas hit by Isaac in addition to Sandy. Democrats also shifted $400 million into a community development program for regions suffering disasters, beyond areas struck by Sandy.
A Coburn amendment to reduce the federal share of costs for the Army Corps of Engineer projects to reduce future flooding risks also failed.
Most of the money in the $60.4 billion bill — $47.4 billion — is for immediate help for victims and other recovery and rebuilding efforts. The aid is intended to help states rebuild public infrastructure like roads and tunnels, and help thousands of people displaced from their homes.
"It will actually put people to work in their own communities, rebuilding their own communities," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.
GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Coburn, two frequent critics of government spending, targeted what they called "questionable" spending in the Democratic bill, including $2 million for roof repairs at Smithsonian Institution museums and $58 million in subsidies for tree planting on private properties. A McCain amendment to strip the tree subsidies failed.
Republicans also criticized $13 billion in the Democratic bill for projects to protect against future storms, including fortifying mass transit systems in the Northeast. Republicans said however worthy such projects may be, they are not urgently needed and should be considered by Congress in the usual appropriations process next year.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that only about $9 billion of the $60.4 billion proposed by Democrats would be spent over the next nine months. The Democratic bill included many large infrastructure projects that often require years to complete, but Republicans said the CBO estimate of such drawn-out spending undercuts the urgency of the Democrats' aid package.
More than $2 billion in federal funds has been spent so far on relief efforts for 11 states and the District of Columbia. FEMA's disaster relief fund still has about $4.3 billion, and officials have said that is enough to pay for recovery efforts into early spring.
New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, District of Columbia, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, New Hampshire, Delaware, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are receiving federal aid.