WASHINGTON — Conservatives and watchdog groups are mounting a "not-so-fast" campaign against a $50.7 billion Superstorm Sandy aid package that Northeastern governors and lawmakers hope to push through the House this coming week.
Their complaint is that lots of the money that lawmakers are considering will actually go toward recovery efforts for past disasters and other projects unrelated to the late-October storm.
A Senate-passed version from the end of the last Congress included $150 million for what the Commerce Department described as fisheries disasters in Alaska, Mississippi and the Northeast, and $50 million in subsidies for replanting trees on private land damaged by wildfires.
The objections have led senior House Republicans to assemble their own $17 billion proposal, that when combined with already approved money for flood insurance claims, is less than half what President Barack Obama sought and the Senate passed in December
That $17 billion package will be brought to the floor by the House Appropriations Committee, and Northeast lawmakers will have a chance to add $33.7 billion more.
House Speaker John Boehner intends to let the House vote on both measures. He's responding both to conservatives who are opposed to more deficit spending, and to Govs. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., and Chris Christie, R-N.J., who are irate that the House hasn't acted sooner.
Critics are taking the sharpest aim at $12.1 billion in the amendment for Department of Housing and Urban Development emergency block grants. Any state struck by a federally declared major disaster in 2011, 2012 or this year would qualify for the grants, and that's just about all the states, said Stephen Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group. Only South Carolina, Arizona and Michigan would not qualify, he said.
"That's not a bad chunk of change, particularly if you are trying to get other lawmakers to vote for the bill," Ellis said.
State and local governments like block grants because they provide more flexibility in how the money is spent. The money can go toward a variety of needs, including hospitals, utilities, roads, small businesses and rent subsidies.
The Northeast lawmakers' $33.7 billion amendment also includes more than $135 million to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration improve weather forecasting.
"A lot of the money goes to government agencies to rebuild rather than helping people actually afflicted by Sandy," Ellis said.
Before getting to the aid measures, the House on Monday planned to consider legislation intended to streamline Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations that critics blame for slowing down recovery efforts. That bill would let FEMA make limited repairs instead of lease payments to provide housing that might be less expensive than traditional agency trailers.
A $60.4 billion storm aid package passed by the Senate in December included $188 million for an Amtrak expansion project with an indirect link to Sandy: Officials say that new, long-planned tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station in Manhattan would be better protected against future flooding.
The Club for Growth, a conservative group, complained the Senate bill was overpriced, full of pork and would swell the federal deficit because other government programs weren't being cut to cover the costs of the legislation. That bill expired with the old Congress on Jan. 3. So whatever additional aid package the House passes would have to go back to the Senate for its approval.
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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