GOP may relent on paying for Sandy aidBy: Seung Min Kim and Kate Nocera
December 13, 2012
Republicans in Congress may not insist on spending cuts to pay for some of the billions in federal aid for Hurricane Sandy victims — a potential win for Eastern Seaboard Democrats who were fretting about that possibility.
Late last week, the White House submitted a $60.4 billion disaster aid request that covers the immediate emergency response to Sandy but also includes nearly $13 billion that would be funneled toward long-term efforts to mitigate future natural disasters. The administration designated about $55 billion as emergency spending.
Though some Republicans have said the disaster-relief package should be paid for, several other GOP lawmakers told POLITICO that’s unlikely, given the urgent need for the aid package.
“If you’re looking for emergency help that has to get out there right now, in the context of this budget debate going on, I think we have to understand that we might not be able to get viable offsets,” said Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, the top Republican on the panel overseeing the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins said she recently met with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about the White House’s Sandy request. The moderate GOP senator said she wasn’t dead set on including offsets.
“We’re still scrutinizing it,” Collins said. “Obviously, it would be ideal if there were offsets, but usually there are not for disaster aid.”
“Offset where you can, but this is truly an emergency,” added Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another member of the Appropriations Committee.
Storm relief for Sandy victims is one of the most pressing legislative items on Congress’s lame-duck agenda, which has been dominated by the ongoing fiscal cliff impasse.
But Republican and Democratic lawmakers from the devastated region — concentrated in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — have lobbied hard for disaster aid. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie separately came to Capitol Hill earlier this month to meet with congressional leaders and stress the need to act quickly.
“I don’t think it should be offset,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), whose Long Island-based district was hit hard by Sandy. “We haven’t offset Katrina, we didn’t offset others, and to me, this is a natural disaster and it is separate.”
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday unveiled its supplemental legislation for Sandy relief, matching the figure requested by the Obama administration. Senate leadership aides said the chamber will probably take up disaster funding after it finishes work on a bill to extend a program that guarantees certain bank deposit accounts, which could be as early as Thursday. Meanwhile, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) told POLITICO earlier Wednesday to not expect any movement in the House on Sandy aid before Christmas.
Disaster relief has gotten tangled up in political fights on Capitol Hill in the past. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in 2011, Republicans called for offsetting the roughly $1.5 billion in storm relief by cutting an auto-industry loan program that was popular among Democrats.
This time around, Congress seems prepared to approve at least some of the disaster relief without cutting elsewhere in the budget. Rory Cooper, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), said any additional aid that would be set aside specifically for emergency response would not need to be offset.
“Our committee is reviewing it to ensure that the request is truly focused on the urgent needs of those impacted,” Cooper said in an email Wednesday. “We will ensure that the necessary assistance is provided as expeditiously as possible.”
“Our hearts go out to the victims of this storm,” added Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “Our committees are looking at the administration’s request now and are determining how best to move forward.”
For now, that’s left some Democrats — particularly from the devastated regions — optimistic that Sandy aid will wind through Congress with little drama.
“We’ve had some assurances from House leadership that offsets will not be required, so we’re going to work very hard to make sure that they’re also not required in the Senate,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Several Republicans, particularly in the Senate, made clear they’d prefer offsets but sympathize with victims of the devastation from the October hurricane.
“If there are ways that we can offset some of it, I think it’s incumbent upon us to look at that,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “But I also recognize that if my state were in the same situation as, say, New Jersey, I would be knocking on the doors of all of my colleagues to make sure that the assistance, the help, for those who have been really damaged by this ‘superstorm,’ that they see that assistance.”
Likewise, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said he’ll look at the details closely before insisting on offsets.
“There’s huge suffering up there, and I personally have always tried, and always have, supported disaster-relief packages wherever they were,” he said. “So it’s a lot of money and we should look at it closely.”
Still, fiscal hawks on Capitol Hill will call for as much of the aid package to be paid for as possible.
“This country can’t continue spending money that they don’t have,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). “So rather than go borrow the money, we ought to say, ‘What’s a lower priority than helping the people of Sandy?’ And that’s how we ought to do it.”
“We should scale to what’s absolutely needed,” added Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). “We shouldn’t even be voting on a $60 billion package right now.”
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the incoming chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said Congress can balance the desire to control government spending while setting aside adequate levels of money for disaster relief.
“If you look at what we’ve pushed for in the past, it’s to properly fund for disasters and when we fund for disasters, we also control spending in other places,” Scalise said. “We can’t give up our desire to control spending on any front.”
Republicans say they’ll trim spending that’s less than urgent. For instance, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) singled out $2 million requested by the White House to repair damaged roofs at several Smithsonian museums in Washington.
“We’re just going to scrub it and scrub it and see what’s really in it and what really isn’t,” said Kingston, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. He added: “Anything needs to be offset right now.”
Rogers, the powerful panel’s chairman, has indicated that he would prefer to move incrementally on Sandy aid, rather than one broader, larger bill. Figures from the Congressional Budget Office released Wednesday show that just a third of the White House’s request — about $21.7 billion — would be spent before October 2014.
“I do expect something,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) of storm relief passing Congress before the calendar year ends. “Whether it’s the whole package or maybe a down payment on the package, that’s another possibility.”