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House to Debate Sandy Disaster Bill, Support for Package Unclear

Source: Dow Jones

Posted on 15 Jan 2013 by Neilson

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Superstorn Sandy billHouse lawmakers are expected this week to debate and vote on a two-pronged package that would deliver much-needed, if delayed, aid to victims of superstorm Sandy, which ravaged the Eastern Seaboard more than two months ago in the days before the November elections.

But the bill's passage isn't assured as relief for the storm victims continues to be caught up in the concerns about federal budget deficits and spending levels by many Republican lawmakers, who continue to believe that the size of government should be aggressively reduced.

Tuesday, votes are expected on a relief bill of more than $50 billion to provide reconstruction help to homeowners, businesses and state and local governments still struggling after the storm, which caused widespread flooding, wind and other damage along the east coast, particularly in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.

To address the concerns over spending levels, House Republican leaders have split the package into a "core" bill of around $18 billion that would deal with what was characterized by senior House GOP aides as immediate disaster relief needs, and then a substantial amendment that would tack on $33 billion in additional funding that would be largely spent in future years to try to prevent the type of wide-ranging chaos caused by Sandy.

Traditionally, Congress has had little problem in digging into its pockets to find funding for disaster relief programs; it has been one of the few areas where bipartisan backing has been easily found. But in the current climate of intense focus on budgetary matters, not even disaster relief bills escape the microscope of those lawmakers determined to tackle federal spending.

Support for the first, smaller package is virtually certain, but the level of support for the larger package remains unclear. The key question is whether there are enough House Democrats combined with Republicans representing districts affected by the storm to reach the 218 votes needed to pass the larger measure.

Additionally, House GOP leaders are likely to allow votes on other amendments that would seek to pare back the size of the package, or to offset its cost by finding cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. Again, it remains unclear whether any of these efforts by fiscal conservatives will have enough support to be adopted by the House. One of these, authored by Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R., S.C.), one the more prominent fiscal hawks in the House, would seek to cut the federal budget by $20 billion, more than enough to cover the cost of the core disaster relief bill.

In a move that could build support for the entire package, the Obama administration issued a statement in support of the bill, urging Congress to pass disaster aid legislation soon.

The Senate already passed a $60.4 billion emergency relief bill before Christmas but amid the tense negotiations on how to avert the so-called fiscal cliff, the House failed to do so.

This led to public outrage by some leading northeastern Republicans including Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y), the former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee; and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. As a result, House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) was forced into a hasty retreat and accelerated his plans to bring forward legislation earlier than he had originally planned.

The House did already manage to pass a $9 billion measure to top up funding in the federal flood insurance scheme, which the Senate subsequently adopted by a voice vote in the first days of 2013.

Taken together, the flood insurance, immediate-needs funding and future spending bills the House will consider Tuesday would equal the same top line figure of the Senate-passed measure. But the individual program funding levels are substantially different between the two packages. For example, the Senate bill includes $17 billion in funding for community development grants to assist in rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of Sandy. While the House bill does as well, it allows communities affected by storms that occurred in 2011, 2012 or will occur this year to apply for federal money.

A Senate Democratic aide said that as long as the current House bill isn't substantively changed during the floor debate, the Senate will likely be able to bring it up and pass it with little or no trouble. But, the aide warned that if any of the attempts to reduce the size of the bill are successful, it could cause significant problems in the Senate.