By Erik Wasson
The White House is asking Congress to pass a $60.4 billion spending bill this month to pay for Hurricane Sandy.
The amount is less than the $82 billion damage assessment made by the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, but greater than the $50 billion reportedly floated by the White House initially.
"All told, although estimates of the total damage of Hurricane Sandy remain in flux, current projections are that Sandy is on track to be the second or third most costly natural disaster in U.S, history, behind Hurricane Katrina (2005) and close to Hurricane Andrew (1992)," Acting White House Budget Director Jeff Zients said in a letter making the request. "Our Nation has an obligation to assist those who suffered losses and who lack adequate resources to rebuild their lives."
“President Obama has acted quickly and worked closely with Governor Cuomo and the New York delegation on emergency supplemental appropriations to help states affected by Tropical Storm Sandy,” they said in a statement.
“While more may be needed in the long term, this robust package is a major first step that we will work to pass as quickly as possible in Congress to help devastated communities, families and businesses,” King and Lowey said.
The New York and New Jersey delegations in the Senate said more supplemental bills will be needed on top of the first $60 billion, and also they predicted a tough fight for this first bill.
"This supplemental is a very good start, and while $60 billion doesn’t cover all of New York and New Jersey’s needs, it covers a large percentage," Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said. "Of course, as we have said before, we believe this will be the first of several supplementals that will be necessary as our states’ needs become more clear, and we look forward to working with the White House on those as well."
"This is going to be a tough fight in the Congress given the fiscal cliff, and some members have not been friendly to disaster relief," they added.
The formal request comes in the middle of heated negotiation of the "fiscal cliff."
Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are battling over finding deficit cuts to replace $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts set to hit in January. A key sticking point is what to do with top individual tax rates and the estate tax. Allowing both to rise as the White House is seeking only generates $80 billion next year, according to the Joint Economic Committee.
House Republican leaders have not publicly said whether they will require spending cuts to offset the $60.4 billion in new spending. The White House and Senate Democrats say the request should be treated as an emergency and not offset.
Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky) said the needs of the victims have to be balanced with fiscal prudence. “It is also our responsibility during these tight-budget times to make sure that the victims of this storm are getting the most of every single recovery dollar, and to ensure that disaster funds are timed and targeted in the most efficient and appropriate manner," he said.
A House GOP leadership aide said the request would be considered quickly, but did not commit to providing all the money without offsets.
"Our committee will begin reviewing it immediately to ensure that the request is truly focused on the urgent needs of those impacted. We will ensure that the necessary assistance is provided as expeditiously as possible," he aide said.
The aide noted that under the August 2011 debt ceiling deal, $5 billion more in money can be spent without exceeding this year's budget cap.
"To the extent that the additional funding is focused on the emergency response to the disaster, under the reformed disaster funding process established last year, it would not need to be offset,' the aide said.
Govs. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) and Chris Christie (R-N.J.) said they support the White House move.
"Today’s agreement on the Administration’s request to Congress would authorize more than $60 billion in funding that will enable our states to recover, repair, and rebuild better and stronger than before. This package also includes funding to invest in essential mitigation and prevention efforts that will better protect our region against the devastating impacts of future superstorms," they said in a joint statement.
“The request is crafted to afford maximum flexibility to state governments and we will continue to work with the Administration and Congress as our needs arise"
“We thank President Obama for his steadfast commitment of support and look forward to continuing our partnership in the recovery effort,” Christie and Cuomo added.
--This report was originally posted at 4:44 p.m. and last updated at 7:20 p.m.