Lawmakers from the Northeast reacted with anger Wednesday to a report that the Obama administration would request $50 billion in disaster assistance related to Hurricane Sandy.
The request would be far less than what has been requested by officials from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the states hit the hardest by the late-October storm.
“That is totally inadequate, if that is the number,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said in response to a report in The New York Times.
Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan, President Obama’s point man on the storm, told lawmakers at a hearing on the hurricane that the administration had not settled on a figure for its request.
“I am not sure where those reports are coming from,” Donovan told senators. “We are still working on the request. We do not have a specific number.”
He did say the administration would submit a proposal this week.
The governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut had requested $82 billion in aid for their states.
Donovan described the $82 billion as a damage assessment and said the administration is working with the states to see if existing funds can cover some of the need.
“The president is not going to leave New York, New Jersey, the entire region to fend for itself,” he said.
The August 2011 debt-ceiling deal allows for $5 billion in extra disaster aid, so anything more will require Congress to lift the existing budget cap for fiscal 2013. It would do so amid a high-stakes debate between the White House and Congress over a deficit-reduction deal to avoid the $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts known as the "fiscal cliff. "
Republicans have not yet said whether they will seek spending cuts to offset the new hurricane aid. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Senate Appropriations Committee subcommittee on Homeland Security ranking member Dan Coats (R-Ind.) all said they want to examine the formal request before commenting.
“We believe they need to do it as emergency spending and not require offsets,” Donovan said. “We will leave no stone unturned to get it done.”
Subcommittee Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said that Northeast lawmakers can count on her to fight for a “robust” spending bill but told reporters she does not have a specific dollar figure in mind yet for the disaster aid, saying only that it must match the level of need.
“Congress should not allow itself to get caught up in a political debate over the need for offsets. This is not the time,” she added.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) warned administration officials that Northeast senators could go ballistic if the request is not adequate.
"We will pull a Landrieu if it comes to that," he said, referring to Landrieu's all-out effort to secure aid for Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.
Donovan said that Congress has to act in the lame-duck session to provide funding and remove limitations in existing law on how aid is used.
Currently, homeowners can only receive $31,000 in aid, a cap considered too low in the Northeast, where home prices are higher than in other parts of the nation.
“Even if they had unlimited resources, there are legislative restraints that will stop in their tracks homeowners and communities from rebuilding,” Donovan said.
He said plans on infrastructure improvements need to be made now, so a supplemental bill cannot wait until spring.
“We can’t go back and restart those plans six months from now,” he said.
This story was posted at 10:20 a.m. and last updated at 4:40 p.m.