Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, two frequent critics of government spending, tried unsuccessfully to strip the Senate version of $125 million for an Agriculture Department program to restore watersheds damaged by wildfires and drought, $2 million for roof repairs at Smithsonian Institution museums in the Washington area and the $50 million in tree planting subsidies.
McCain also targeted $15 million to repair storm-damaged NASA facilities, saying the agency had called its Sandy damage "minimal."
"An emergency funding bill should focus on the emergency needs of the victims, not the needs of politicians," said Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, the senior Republican on Senate Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security. "Loading up a massive $60.4 billion package with unrelated projects and earmarks for other states is not the way we should use taxpayer dollars."
Coats' scaled-back $23.8 billion Sandy aid bill was rejected by the Senate.
Republicans also criticized $13 billion in the Senate bill for projects to protect against future storms, including fortification of mass transit systems in the Northeast and building new jetties in vulnerable seaside areas. While maybe worthwhile, those projects don't represent emergencies and shouldn't be exempt from federal spending caps, GOP lawmakers said.
The basic $17 billion before the House on Tuesday is aimed at immediate Sandy recovery needs, including $5.4 billion for New York and New Jersey transit systems and $5.4 billion for FEMA's disaster aid fund. The $33.7 billion amendment would bring the total up to the more than $60 billion sought by Obama and passed by Senate Democrats.
It includes the block grants for previous disasters, weather forecasting improvements and measures to minimize damage from future storms, but not the $188 million for the Amtrak expansion project.
"We know it's going to be a heavy lift for the $33 billion, but we'll find the votes," said Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., whose Staten Island district was heavily damaged by Sandy.
But conservatives clearly prefer the smaller, $17 billion version. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., a frequent critic of Boehner after losing his seat on the House Budget Committee, said the Sandy aid legislation should be focused on storm-related recovery.
"Conservatives want to see a real plan that addresses real needs for Sandy," he said.
Obama has signed a $9.7 billion replenishment of the national flood insurance fund to help pay claims from 115,000 homeowners, businesses and renters.
FEMA has spent more than $2 billion in disaster relief money for shelter, restoring power and other immediate needs arising from Sandy. The Oct. 29 storm that pounded the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Maine with hurricane-force winds and coastal flooding. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were the hardest hit.
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