Politics could complicate storm recovery aid

A bathroom hangs from a storm-blasted house in Sea Girt, N.J. "I hope [relief] doesn't get caught up" in the deficit debate, one official said.
A bathroom hangs from a storm-blasted house in Sea Girt, N.J. "I hope [relief] doesn't get caught up" in the deficit debate, one official said. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 01, 2012

WASHINGTON - The long rebuilding after Sandy may have a new complication: Congress' gnarled politics.

Lawmakers from New Jersey and elsewhere are seeking support for a massive aid package to help the East Coast recover from the storm just as Washington focuses on cutting the national deficit.

One after another Thursday, legislators from hard-hit states urged that disaster aid that may reach $100 billion be considered apart from charged talks about the fiscal cliff.

"I hope it doesn't get caught up" in that debate, said Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, a North Jersey lawmaker on the House Ways and Means Committee. "That would be very dangerous."

Speed, officials said, is essential as residents decide whether to rebuild and businesses choose to close or reopen. They must know what support is available, they said, and should not have to wait for a new session of Congress in January.

But plans for a supplemental spending bill to provide emergency aid without a way to pay for it would run counter to the deficit-reduction efforts consuming Washington.

In the Republican-controlled House, rules require that new spending be offset by reductions to other programs. Majority Leader Eric Cantor insisted that cuts accompany Hurricane Irene relief last year, and some balked at Hurricane Katrina support without offsets, but the GOP backed down in each instance.

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) said he had received word from Cantor that budget cuts would not be required for aid to New Jersey, New York, and other states seeking support.

"We've been assured . . . this is going to be a separate matter," Smith said. "I don't believe there will be offsets on this at all."

Cantor's home state of Virginia was among those affected by Sandy. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

The approaching end of the congressional term complicates matters, said Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.).

"It hit us in the wintertime, which creates complicated things for families back at home. It hits us at the end of the congressional session, which gives us a more truncated time. And it hits us in the midst of fiscal-cliff questions. So, could it be a more super-Herculean job? No, I don't think there's much more that could have been thrown on our shoulders," Menendez said.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.), also pushing for relief, said this week that he expected "a hard fight," citing negotiations related to the fiscal cliff, the deadline for automatic reductions in federal spending and expiration of Bush-era federal tax cuts.

"We know money is short in Washington," he said.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the committee that oversees disaster relief, has said that some spending for Sandy aid should be offset by budget cuts.

"Otherwise it's just going to be added to the debt," she said.

But a senior Senate Republican aide said it was "premature" to characterize the party leadership's position without a bill that specified the price and services covered.

New Jersey lawmakers were optimistic Thursday as they and others testified at a hearing about the effects of Sandy. They pointed out that disaster relief historically has been approved without offsetting cuts. Just as New Jersey stands with other regions hit by tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires, Menendez said, he expects colleagues to back the East Coast.

"It is emergency, it is unforeseen, it is an act of nature, it is why we come together as a country and respond," Menendez said in an interview.

Asked how confident he was that a bill would be passed by the end of the session, Pascrell said, "on a scale of 1 to 5, I'm at 4."

"Enough people saw on television what was going on, enough people saw the president come together with the governor of our state and do an excellent job of bipartisanship," he said.

It could take time, though. Nine supplemental spending bills helped the Gulf after Katrina.

The tab for a region-wide recovery is unclear. Pascrell and U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D., N.J.) said the cost could reach $100 billion. New Jersey and New York, which sustained the most damage, have submitted cost estimates of $37 million and $42 million.

The total cost estimate for any legislation is likely to come from the White House, and some expenses reported by New Jersey and New York may be offset by insurance.

New Jersey legislative aides hope to see a White House estimate next week so lawmakers can begin to move a bill. There is about $12 billion left in various disaster recovery pools.

Along with recovery money, lawmakers are seeking funds for protections from storms, including expanded beaches and dunes, and new sea walls. Christie's cost estimate included $7.4 billion for mitigation and protection.

It is unclear if new construction would be treated the same as other requests. Disaster aid is typically for rebuilding.

Separate from the spending plans, Pascrell is developing a tax-relief bill to allow businesses and individuals to deduct losses from the storm. The plan is based on a bill passed after Katrina.

Contact Jonathan Tamari at jtamari@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari. Read his blog 'Capitol Inq' at www.philly.com/CapitolInq.

This article includes information from the Associated Press.

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