N. J. and N.Y. lawmakers lukewarm over just-passed Sandy relief bill

Posted: January 06, 2013

WASHINGTON - The first piece of the package to aid victims of Hurricane Sandy moved easily Friday through the House and Senate, but officials from New Jersey and New York still weren't smiling.

The $9.7 billion approved for flood insurance is only a piece of the $60 billion sought by states hit hard by the October storm, and Northeastern lawmakers, still angry that the full package was sent back to the legislative starting line earlier in the week, are anticipating a much tougher fight over the remaining funds.

"We should not have parades down the street because this bill has passed," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said on the Senate floor. "The major work of helping the victims of Sandy is still ahead of us."

The vote in the House was 354-67. All the votes against came from Republicans. The Senate followed with a voice vote, sending the bill to President Obama, who has supported aid for Sandy victims.

The remaining money being sought will pay for disaster relief to families and businesses, and for rebuilding roads and public transportation. It represents the vast majority of on-the-ground support.

Days after Gov. Christie and Northeastern congressmen of both parties unleashed a torrent of fury because the House canceled a vote on the full relief bill, they still were not satisfied.

Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo were "pleased with this progress," but in a joint statement said the $9.7 billion "was just a down payment, and it is now time to go even further and pass the final and more complete, clean disaster-aid bill."

What passed Friday was, politically, the simplest piece of the Sandy-relief request. The money will replenish the National Flood Insurance Program, allowing the government to meet contractual obligations to homeowners who have paid for coverage.

"This was the easier portion," said U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.), whose district includes Atlantic City and a swath of the Shore. "The fact that 67 people still voted against it kind of shows you where, philosophically, some folks are coming from."

It also portends the level of opposition to the bigger block of aid.

That funding is expected to face much more contentious House votes Jan. 15 and then has to slog through the Senate again.

"We all know the really big stuff is Jan. 15, and that's what we have to completely focus on," LoBiondo said.

The "no" votes Friday came largely from those who object to any new spending and who note that the aid for Sandy is not paid for and will fatten the deficit.

Notably, Paul Ryan, House budget committee chairman and erstwhile vice presidential nominee, opposed the flood insurance bill - an ominous signal for his stand on the rest of the funds in a chamber where he holds significant sway.

"We must help those affected by Hurricane Sandy. We should meet all of their needs as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, Washington's legislative response fails on both counts. It refuses to distinguish - or even prioritize - disaster relief over pork-barrel spending," Ryan (R., Wis.) said in a statement to the website BuzzFeed.

The fiscally conservative and politically influential Club for Growth has also opposed the Sandy bill, citing the hundreds of millions of dollars proposed for items such as aid to fisheries in Alaska and money for a roof on the Smithsonian.

New Jersey and New York lawmakers said those items had been stripped from the House bill. But Republicans there kept harping on "pork" in the measure, citing items that were in the Senate version.

"There won't be a penny for any state that was not affected by the storm," LoBiondo said.

What still draws the greatest ire from Northeastern lawmakers is that the full $60 billion relief package was on the verge of final congressional approval days ago, as a kind of sideshow to the fiscal-cliff drama then playing out in Washington.

The Senate had already approved the measure; House Republicans said they had the votes in their chamber, too, and were going to send it to Obama's desk Wednesday - only to see Speaker John A. Boehner cancel the vote at the last moment.

Because the 2011-12 session of Congress was ending, the legislative process had to begin anew, with several political obstacles placed back in the bill's path.

"The bad news is that we even had to go through this dog and pony show in the first place," Schumer said Friday.

Two additional House votes are needed to OK the remaining $51 billion - along with another vote in the Senate, where procedural rules can stop any bill.

A piece of the remaining funding, about $18 billion for the most immediate needs, is included in a bill that has broad support from House Republicans. While some of the most fiscally conservative members may demand offsetting budget cuts, House leaders have given assurances that cuts won't be necessary, LoBiondo said.

As for the remaining $33 billion, which will pay for long-term projects and building new storm defenses, LoBiondo said: "We might have some trouble."

That measure may require heavy Democratic support in the House to overcome expected Republican opposition.

Aside from philosophical opposition to new spending, the logistics of a new session of Congress mean the bill needs to win some additional friends. Eighty-four new House members and 13 new senators were sworn in Thursday. New Jersey and New York lawmakers will have to persuade some of them to support Sandy aid.

"Some people don't know how to find the bathroom," LoBiondo said, and on "the first full legislative day, they're going to have a huge vote, and it's got some controversy attached."

Stripping out the aid for Alaska fisheries or Smithsonian roof repairs could come at a political price - the House version may anger some senators who were counting on that aid to help pay for previous disasters' damages that had not been addressed.

"Obviously, that was part of having a broader spectrum of support . . . for this legislation," Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) said. "If the House wants to limit the damage they've done, the best way they can do that is to largely send us the $51 billion in the way the Senate dictated it."

He said he worried that the House would add restrictive language that could hamper recovery efforts. House members, in turn, worry that the Senate's procedures may hold things up.

"The House taking a vote on Jan. 15 is lovely," U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.) said on the House floor. "It's also utterly meaningless if the other body does not act."

Contact Jonathan Tamari

at jtamari@phillynews.com

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his blog, "CapitolInq" at www.philly.com/CapitolInq.

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