Republicans are on a collision course with President Barack Obama over his request for $60.4 billion in cleanup funds for superstorm Sandy.
Some say they doubt whether the full amount is urgently needed, and they’re telling leaders that most, if not all, of the money must be offset with cuts elsewhere in the government’s budget.
“At some point, you got to ask the question: Are we going to pay our bills or are we going to sock it to the next generation?” said Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the chamber’s No. 4 Republican.
The administration’s request, formally made last week, is hitting Congress at a politically awkward time. Lawmakers are consumed with trying to find budget cuts to stave off the so-called fiscal cliff, and there are only weeks left in this session of Congress.
The request is “an awful big bite to swallow” when “we are trying to solve the deficit problem,” said Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate’s Republican whip.
Senate Democrats, as well as the administration, want the money to be considered an emergency that can be financed with borrowed money.
It is “fundamentally unfair” to require cuts in return for aid, said Senator Dick Durbin, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat from Illinois. “Even in Republican states, we have natural disasters,” referring to the fact that the states affected by Sandy are mostly represented by Democrats.
Majority Democrats in the Senate plan to take up their own draft of the plan, granting the administration’s entire funding request.
The Democrats released a 94-page bill that makes some changes to the details in the administration’s $60.4 billion request. It doesn’t include offsets.
“"Hopefully we can get support, full support, from colleagues on both sides of the aisle so we can pass this bill next week,” said Senator Charles Schumer of New York, a Democrat.
The bill would provide for $11.5 billion for FEMA’s disaster relief fund and $17 billion for community development block grants. It also calls for $921 million to repair roads and bridges, far more than then $308 million sought by the administration. It would provide $336 million for Amtrak; $32 million was requested. For mass transit, the bill would provide $10.8 billion rather than the $11.7 billion requested by the White House.
The package put together by the Senate Appropriations Committee also would provide disaster aid far from the Atlantic shore: $150 million for fishery disasters declared by the Secretary of Commerce in 2012.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers from New York and New Jersey say they will introduce separate legislation that would provide tax breaks to those affected by the storm.
“There is no real tax relief in the supplemental” funding request by the administration, said Representative Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat. “So this is like the financial side of it for residents as well as small businessmen.”
A government report issued yesterday showing most of the cleanup money won’t be spent anytime soon could fan Republican skepticism.
Just $9.1 billion of the money will be spent in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, according to a preliminary analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, with another $12.6 billion going out the door next year. The remainder would be spent in subsequent years, according to the report.
“There’s a lot of stuff in there that isn’t immediate and right now our focus needs to be on what’s immediate,” said Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican.
House Republicans may approve the money in tranches, said Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the Appropriations Committee. That would enable them to separate funding for “legitimate emergency” needs from longer-term reconstruction projects needing a “longer, harder look,” she said.
Republicans are skeptical of such requested items as $150 million to purchase floodplain easements and $400 million to buy pieces of land to mitigate the damage from future flooding events.
Representative Mick Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican, scoffed at suggestions his colleagues may feel less urgency about approving aid to blue states such as New York and New Jersey.
“I recognize the fact that it could happen to my state,” said Mulvaney. “If it happens to my state, I’ll be here the next day trying to figure out a way to save the money so we can pay for it.”