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Sandy Aid Worth $60 Billion Passes Senate as House Balks

The U.S. Senate approved a $60 billion disaster-aid package for victims of Hurricane Sandy, forwarding it to the House where lawmakers are balking at the price tag.

The chamber today voted 61-33 for the plan that would pay to clean up debris, repair mass-transit systems, rebuild flooded buildings and myriad other expenses, some only tangentially related to the storm.

House Republicans have expressed doubts that so much money is needed anytime soon, though they haven’t said how much they’re inclined to provide.

The funding request, made earlier this month by the Obama administration, is intended to help Northeastern states recover from an October storm blamed for more than 125 deaths.

“There’s been so much hardship, so much heartbreak and this is a very good step in the right direction of beginning to meet the needs of New Yorkers,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat.

The request has hit Congress at an awkward time because lawmakers are preoccupied with trying to cobble together a package of spending cuts that would allow them to stave off the so-called fiscal cliff. Votes on amendments to the package were delayed this afternoon so that party leaders could meet with President Barack Obama to discuss what to do about more than $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts set to begin taking effect next week.

Even as lawmakers struggled with the cuts demanded by the fiscal cliff, Democrats sought to add money to the Sandy aid package for other initiatives.

King Crab

Senator Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, tried unsuccessfully to add funding to help the Pacific island of Palau cope with a recent typhoon. Montana Democrat Jon Tester’s bid to add funding to fight wildfires also failed.

Republicans, who complained the package included funding for items unrelated to Sandy, were unsuccessful in their efforts to strip money out of the measure. Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn’s amendment targeting aid to fisheries as far away as Alaska was easily defeated, 35-60.

“Fish swim big distances as do crabs as do lobster, particularly those big king crabs,” said Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, defending the provisions.

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, tried unsuccessfully to delete $58 million set aside to subsidize tree planting. An alternative $23.8 billion aid package offered by Republicans fell on a 41-54 vote.

A sore point for many Republicans is funding for construction projects aimed at mitigating the damage from future storms. Democrats such as New York’s Charles Schumer say it would be foolish to scrimp on efforts to prevent a repeat of the damage inflicted by Sandy.

Lard Up

Republicans, pointing to estimates showing much of that money won’t be spent before 2015, said those items could wait, saying they need more time to consider them.

“We are not against mitigation,” said Senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican. “But we are saying, ‘let us focus on Sandy -- let us get the emergency help to those who need it now’’ and not ‘‘lard up’’ the legislation with ‘‘all kinds of excessive spending that isn’t needed for this particular emergency.’’

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