Malia Rulon Herman, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The House was poised Tuesday to begin consideration of a multi-billion-dollar disaster aid bill for victims of Superstorm Sandy.
New Jersey and New York lawmakers are pushing for a robust package that would total at least $51 billion, but its prospects were uncertain. Many conservative Republicans have complained the price tag is too high.
Northeast lawmakers, meanwhile, have complained their states have had to wait nearly three months for federal assistance. They had pushed for an aid package before Congress adjourned at the end of year and were incensed when House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio pulled the bill from the calendar.
Tuesday's vote was promised after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and others - both Republicans and Democrats - decried the delay.
The vote comes a day after the House unanimously (403-0) approved a package of reforms designed to streamline disaster aid programs in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
The Senate, which will reconvene Jan. 22, is expected to take up whatever legislation the House approves.
The Oct. 29 storm killed more than 100 people in 10 states - 41 in New York City alone - and wiped out entire communities in coastal New York and New Jersey. It also paralyzed mass transit systems and left tens of thousands of people homeless. Power was cut to more than 8 million homes.
Christie called Monday for lawmakers to approve the disaster aid. Such aid traditionally has won support from members whose districts weren't directly affected.
"I don't think what they want is a situation where Congress winds up having regions pitted against each other," Christie said, suggesting that lawmakers who vote against the Sandy aid on Tuesday shouldn't count on help from Northeast lawmakers if their own states experience a disaster.
"That's never what disaster relief has been about," he said.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo conveyed similar sentiments in his address to the state legislature last week, saying "Remember New York because New York will not forget, I promise you."
The aid package up for consideration Tuesday consists of a $17 billion aid bill by Republican Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and an amendment by Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey that would add $34 billion.
The House earlier this month approved $9.7 billion to help pay flood insurance claims from the storm. Passage of the measures up for consideration Tuesday could bring the total to around $60 billion.
Late last year, the Senate passed a $60.4 billion Sandy disaster bill that mirrored the request from the White House. That vote was nullified when the 112th Congress ended and the 113th Congress took office on Jan. 3.
The new disaster relief package could face substantial obstacles. More than 90 amendments had been filed by Friday, including some that would slash funding for Community Development Block Grant money designed to help Sandy victims.
It was unclear how many of the amendments would be allowed.
For New Jersey and New York, the $16 billion in grant money in Frelinghuysen's bill is critical to rebuilding on a local level. Transit funding - $10.4 billion in Frelinghuysen's bill - also is a necessity for the two states, home to 40 percent of the nation's transit riders.
Watchdog groups such as Taxpayers for Common Sense have criticized the aid package for including money for items that don't appear Sandy-related, such as $2 million for roof repairs at Smithsonian buildings and $10 million for FBI salaries.
But Frelinghuysen said Monday that everything in his amendment is relevant to Sandy.
"It is fully transparent and quite honestly, I think it's fully defensible," he said.
Among the most controversial amendments is one from Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina that would completely offset the bill by cutting all discretionary federal programs, including defense, by 1.63 percent.
"I know how important the supplemental relief is to those affected by Hurricane Sandy, but I believe we can provide that relief while finding ways to pay for it rather than adding to the nation's ballooning deficit," Mulvaney said.
Congress historically has not offset disaster relief with spending cuts, and lawmakers from states hit by Sandy are outraged by proposals to do so now. The White House, in a statement Monday, urged the House to steer clear of requiring offsets.
"Given the emergency and one-time nature of this supplemental appropriation, and in keeping with the response to Hurricane Katrina, Deepwater Horizon, and other disasters, the administration believes that all funding in the bill should be designated as an emergency requirement and not be offset," the statement said.
Christie on Monday also urged lawmakers to stay away from offsets.
"New Jersey does not expect anything more than what was done for Louisiana and Alabama and Mississippi in Katrina, what was done in Joplin, Mo., (after a tornado) what was done in floods in Iowa," Christie said Monday. "We don't expect anything more than that, but we will not accept anything less. If they want to make new rules about disasters, well they picked the wrong state."
But as Congress grapples with how to deal with the nation's growing deficit, House conservatives have criticized the Sandy recovery bill as a proposal that would add to the debt. When the House voted Jan. 4 to authorize the $9.7 billion in borrowing authority for the National Flood Insurance Program, 67 Republicans voted against it.
At least one of those Republicans, Rep. Steven Palazzo of Mississippi, has experienced a change of heart.
Palazzo, whose own state received billions in federal aid after being pounded by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, drew heated criticism for his vote against the Sandy-related flood insurance money.
Palazzo joined Republican Rep. Jon Runyan of New Jersey for a tour of the storm-battered Jersey Shore last week. In a letter Monday to fellow House Republicans who had voted against the flood insurance money, Palazzo said the damage he saw compared to what Mississippi experienced as a result of Katrina.
"I believe we as Americans will work to do what is responsible by reforming our disaster relief system, but we will also always do what is necessary to provide help to those in need," Palazzo wrote, urging support for the disaster aid bill.
The conservative Club for Growth, which had urged lawmakers to vote against the flood insurance money, also opposes Rogers' bill and Frelinghuysen's amendment.
"Congress shouldn't keep passing massive 'emergency' relief bills that aren't paid for, have little oversight, and are stuffed with pork," the group said in an email.
The FEMA reform bill that passed the House on Monday would make several changes to the disaster recovery program, such as replacing its traditional reimbursement program, which has been criticized as inefficient, with fixed-price grants based on damage estimates.
It also would give local governments greater flexibility to consolidate or rebuild destroyed or damaged facilities differently than they were before.
Contributing: Michael L. Diamond and Kirk Moore, Asbury Park Press; Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington Bureau.
Gannett Washington Bureau