Republicans question need for $60.4 billion in Hurricane Sandy aid

Republicans argued Tuesday that the Obama administration has not provided enough evidence that its $60.4 billion request in Hurricane Sandy aid is needed.

The GOP also argues Senate Democrats are rushing a bill to the floor. The Senate could bring a supplemental spending bill based on the administration’s request to the floor as soon as Thursday. The administration made its request in a 77-page letter to lawmakers on Friday evening. 

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“Who’s analyzed this? Nobody to my knowledge has in a very sophisticated way laid out a plan,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, said of the request. 

He questioned whether states in the Northeast hit by Sandy need that much money — or at least whether they need the entire $60.4 billion right now. 

“And if it does take that much money, I would suggest we’d do better to approve what we know we need right now, and then come back later with more documented requests for more money.” 

Republicans in the House say they are struggling to analyze the White House request because of a lack of evidence from the administration. 

“It wasn’t an official bill request … it didn’t have the justifying documents,” a House aide said. “They said they did not have time to complete the justification … why don’t we wait a few months so they can do that?” 

GOP aides are researching whether specific requests for billions in aid across a variety of agencies are needed. Their work could take into next week. 

Democrats said the GOP complaints were without merit.

Matt Dennis, a spokesman for incoming House Appropriations ranking member Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said that the request is “entirely typical of justifications associated with emergency requests, which by definition cannot wait a few months.”

“Homeowners, families, and small businesses cannot wait a few months for Congress to respond to severe need created by Sandy,” he said. “They need help now.”

The administration’s letter requests a range of funding that includes $2 million to fix museum roofs in Washington, D.C.; $4 million to repair space facilities including the Kennedy Space Center; $100 million for Head Start centers, $348 million for damage to parks — including the Statue of Liberty’s island; and a $9.7 billion bailout of the National Flood Insurance Program. 

The biggest items are $15 billion for Community Development Block Grants, which have been criticized by the Government Accountability Office in the past for lack of oversight; and $11.5 billion for emergency and non-emergency transportation funding. The request includes $13 billion in aid to prevent future storm damage that Republicans like Sessions say is not needed this month. 

Senate appropriators are already drafting a bill for floor consideration this week, and a leadership aide said that the bill could come up Thursday after a cloture vote on the extension of the Transaction Account Guarantee (TAG) banking program. 

Sessions said he’d take his own experiences with storm damage in Alabama into account when dealing with the issue — and his own experiences with wasted aid. 

“I’ve been on the Gulf Coast and I’ve seen a lot of money, and I’ve seen a lot of waste, too,” he said. 

The $60.4 billion request is less than the $82 billion that New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were seeking, but Democrats from those states appear to be accepting the lower figure for now. 

“We think the $60.4 billion … we are going to work hard to get it passed without offsets,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. He said appropriators began writing the bill over the weekend and “thus far” cooperation from all sides has been good. 

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Republicans from the states, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and N.Y. Rep. Pete King, have offered support for the proposal.

The Senate is likely to use a Military Construction-Veterans Affairs spending bill that already passed the House as a vehicle. That bill is generally the least controversial of the 12 annual appropriations bills, none of which have been enacted into law for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. 

The government is now operating on a stopgap spending bill that runs through the end of March. Some appropriators want to combine a Sandy bill with an omnibus spending bill that replaces the stopgap measure. 

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) has said his first preference is to pass a smaller targeted Sandy bill in the lame-duck session and look at long-term storm preparedness spending next year. 

Rogers has not said whether either bill would need to be offset by spending cuts elsewhere. 

But Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) told reporters on Tuesday that he could not support the $60.4 billion supplemental in its current form, and that he hoped offsets would be part of any negotiation of a final package. 

“At $60 billion? In this time when we’re trying to solve the deficit problem?” Kyl said. “Can I verbalize that stinky look on my face? 

“I can’t predict what my colleagues will do,” added Kyl, who’s leaving the Senate at the end of the current session. “But that’s an awful big bite to swallow when the amount of money that’s set aside for this is about $5 billion and they’re asking for $60 billion. That’s too much.” 

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Republican demands for offsets are wrong. 

“This is fundamentally unfair for some Republicans to insist on offsets for Sandy,” he said. “This notion that we have to cut money out of the budget, Medicare, you name it, to offset each of these disasters is unrealistic and unfair.” 

—This story was posted at 1 p.m. and updated at 6:47 p.m. and at 7:33 p.m.