Tuesday January 29, 2013

WASHINGTON -- Three months after Superstorm Sandy devastated coastal areas in much of the Northeast, the Senate moved Monday toward passing a $50.5 billion emergency package of relief and recovery aid after House Republicans stripped it of spending unrelated to disasters.

Despite opposition from conservatives concerned about adding billions of dollars more to the nation’s debt, Northeast lawmakers were optimistic about having the 60 votes needed to win Senate approval and send the long-delayed package to President Barack Obama, who has said he would sign it. The House passed the bill two weeks ago.

Lawmakers say the money is urgently needed to start rebuilding homes, businesses, public transportation facilities and other infrastructure damaged by the Oct. 29 storm.

"There’s no excuse for delay," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. "We need to get assistance to victims of Sandy as soon as possible.

The biggest chunk of money is $16 billion for Housing and Urban Development Department community development block grants. Of that, about $12 billion will be shared among Sandy victims as well as those from other federally declared disasters in 2011-2013. The remaining $3.9 billion is solely for Sandy-related projects.

More than $11 billion will go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief aid fund for shelter, restoring power and other storm-interrupted utility services and meeting other immediate needs arising from Sandy and other disasters. Another $10 billion is devoted to repairing New York and New Jersey transit systems and making them more resistant to future storms.

"The funding in this bill is urgently needed," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., as Senate debate began. "Hundreds of thousands of families have seen their lives turned upside down."

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said Republicans weren’t seeking "to undermine" help for Sandy victims, but instead were trying to make sure that the money was actually being spent on emergency needs.

"We’re simply trying to say we need some standards," Coats said.

GOP leaders cut spending in the Senate bill unrelated to disasters. One was to transfer $1 billion for training Iraqi policemen to instead be used on bolstering security at U.S. diplomatic missions abroad in the wake of a Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed.

Also deleted was $188 million for an Amtrak expansion project that included new, long-planned tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station in Manhattan, and another $150 million for fisheries disasters that states such as Alaska and Mississippi could have shared.

After all the cost-cutting, 179 House Republicans still voted against the disaster aid package with only 49 favoring it. GOP leaders had to rely on yes votes from 192 Democrats to pass it.

As with past natural disasters, the Sandy aid bill does not offset the aid with spending cuts, meaning the aid comes at the cost of higher deficits. The lone exception is an offset provision requiring that $3.4 billion for Army Corps of Engineers projects to protect against future storms be covered by unspecified spending cuts of an equal amount in other programs before next October.

As of Monday, FEMA said it spent $3.3 billion in disaster relief money for shelter, restoring power and other immediate needs arising from the storm.

New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, New Hampshire, Ohio, Delaware, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia have shared that money.