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House to Take Up Storm Relief Bill Amid Battle Over Spending

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Original Publication: The New York Times, January 13, 2013
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January 14, 2013

WASHINGTON — The House will move ahead this week with a multibillion-dollar package to provide aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy, but the legislation is already caught in an escalating debate over spending and deficits that foreshadows another ugly fight among Republicans.

Squeezed between the demands of Northeastern Republicans and conservatives, House Republican leaders have orchestrated a legislative approach that they say will allow $50 billion in aid to be approved on Tuesday.

A bare-bones package totaling $17 billion would come to a vote first, followed by a $33.7 billion amendment written by New Jersey and New York Republicans. That way House conservatives can vote for some, but not all, of the assistance, which ultimately would rely on Democratic votes to push it to the finish.

The $33.7 billion installment is facing severe resistance because some of it would go to projects and programs far from the hurricane disaster zone, and much of it, although related to Hurricane Sandy, can barely be considered emergency aid.

The list of nonemergency items is considerable: $25 million to improve weather forecasting and hurricane intensity predictions; $118 million for Amtrak’s Northeast corridor, with only $32 million for storm-related repairs; $16 billion in development funds for any community declared a disaster zone from 2011 to 2013; and $2 billion for highway spending nationwide.

“There are a core of items that truly meet vital needs,” said Steve Ellis, the vice president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. “But that is overshadowed by the fact that billions of dollars have been added to things that should be paid for through the normal budget process.”

Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, scheduled the vote in the House over a week ago after drawing sharp rebukes for adjourning the previous Congress last year without taking up a $60.4 billion aid bill that the Senate had passed to finance recovery efforts in the hurricane-battered states.

Several prominent Northeastern Republicans were among the loudest critics, including Representative Peter T. King of Long Island, N.Y., and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who is a possible presidential contender in 2016.

To be sure, House Republicans have removed a number of items included in the Senate bill that vaguely resembled pork-barrel spending and were included to win enough votes in that chamber to ensure the bill’s passage late last year.

Among the items removed were $150 million for fisheries in Alaska and Mississippi and $56 million for the West Coast to clean up debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan. But while their removal was intended to mollify fiscal conservatives in the House, it might undermine support for the package in the Senate.

Even so, the House debate will most likely become messy — and passage may still be threatened by the minefield of amendments the bill will probably face on Tuesday. Passage of any of those amendments could imperil the package’s prospects for quick approval in the Senate.

By the House Rules Committee’s deadline for amendments at 4 p.m. Friday, some 92 had been submitted, most to either cut spending in the package or demand cuts elsewhere in the budget. Some amendments are quick strikes, like eliminating $111 million for improving weather satellite technology. Other amendments are more ambitious, like one proposed by a group of conservatives calling for cuts in other popular programs to pay for the relief package. (A senior Democratic Senate aide said such a move would imperil the overall package in that chamber.)

“We’d rather not have to deal with any of these amendments,” Mr. King said. “But I am confident that we will be able to defeat any amendments that come up for a vote.”

Supporters of the larger aid package say that many of the items are legitimate and that critics are misconstruing them. For instance, under the larger bill, drafted by Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, Republican of New Jersey, $16 billion in development funds would be designated for any community declared a disaster zone between 2011 and 2013; that includes 47 states and Puerto Rico. And $2 billion is set aside for highway spending nationwide.

In both those cases, an aide explained, federal rules make those huge infusions necessary if money is to get to New York and New Jersey. Highways needing repair after the storm, for instance, fall to the back of the line of projects still awaiting assistance after earlier disasters. Only by financing those previous projects can lawmakers rush aid to the Northeast storm zone.

Supporters also point to the $118 million for Amtrak’s Northeast corridor. While acknowledging that only $32 million would go to hurricane-related repairs, they note that the rest would go to bolstering the system’s ability to withstand future storms, as well as to long-planned improvements.

Mr. Ellis, of the taxpayers’ group, said that previous disaster bills taken up by Congress had been stuffed with more flagrant examples of pork-barrel spending. But, he said, the Hurricane Sandy bill followed a pattern established in the era of Tom DeLay, the House Republican leader from 2003 to 2005: Congress adopts hard caps on spending to prove its fiscal discipline, then uses emergency spending bills to get around those caps.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Mr. Ellis said, “this is better than business as usual because these things are normally bigger Christmas trees.”

“But,” he added, “because of our nation’s dire fiscal situation, we cannot afford anything remotely resembling business as usual anymore.”

Written by: Raymond Hernandez and Jonathan Weisman

Original Publication URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/14/nyregion/house-to-take-up-sandy-relief-bill-amid-battle-over-spending.html?_r=0

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