The White House on Friday asked Congress for $60.4 billion in emergency aid for communities hit hard by superstorm Sandy, and argued that no spending cuts should be made to other programs to cover the new expense.
The first formal price tag on the storm that devastated the Northeast in late October, the request is likely to be the initial installment of federal aid needed to help the region’s recovery.
The large request presents a new challenge for Congress during its highly contentious lame-duck session, and it remains to be seen how much money lawmakers actually can clear quickly in a Sandy recovery package. Senate Democrats having set a goal of clearing an aid bill this month.
The White House already is seeking to counter conservatives’ potential objection to the hefty measure by arguing that last year’s debt accord (PL 112-25) allows for spending caps to be waived in the case of emergencies.
“The extraordinary destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy has created funding needs that meet this definition,” Jeff Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. “Accordingly, this emergency funding can and should be provided without offset.”
The request is in line with the $60 billion figure that Reid had suggested earlier in the week. Members of the New York and New Jersey delegations had balked at earlier reports of a disaster aid package in the $45 billion to $55 billion range, calling it insufficient.
Among the biggest expenses in the package are an about $6.2 billion for repairing public transportation and $13 billion aimed at creating safeguards against damage from future storms.
New York and New Jersey officials have stressed in recent weeks that the federal government must allow some waiving of agency rules in cases where they could impede needed recovery efforts. The White House proposal responded to this demand, noting for one key program, the community development block grants, that the disaster-aid package “must provide flexibilities for effective implementation.”
In a joint statement, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, praised the White House plan that will “afford maximum flexibility to state governments.”
Members of the New York and New Jersey delegations in Congress also were quick to describe the package as only an initial injection of aid for their region.
A bipartisan statement from two New York House members echoed the point.
“While more may be needed in the long term, this robust package is a major first step that we will work to pass as quickly as possible in Congress to help devastated communities, families and businesses,” said Democrat Nita M. Lowey and Republican Peter T. King.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, speaks with reporters in the Capitol after a speech on the Senate floor that accused the CIA of searching computers set up for Congressional staff for their research of interrogation programs.