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Democrats Don't Expect Offsets, Debt Talks to Delay Aid

Democrats aren’t expecting ongoing fiscal cliff negotiations or the threat of spending offsets to derail their push this month to pass a multibillion- dollar superstorm Sandy aid package.

“Disaster aid has never been part of any kind of deficit reduction plan, any structural problems in the economy. It’s a one-time allocation,” said Charles E. Schumer, the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat, on Thursday. “We prefer to keep it separate.”

New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, said Speaker John A. Boehner told Garden State Gov. Chris Christie in a Capitol Hill meeting Thursday that offsets will not be an issue. Menendez said the speaker assured Christie “that while some in conference may raise offsets, that is not where he believes that the majority of his conference will be on this issue.”

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel declined to confirm the speaker had made those comments but said Boehner is “deeply concerned by the devastation resulting from this terrible storm” and would “get to work immediately” on any aid request once it’s received from the administration. Christie, a Republican, met separately with Senate appropriators, including Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., who helps oversees disaster funding, Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Menendez. He also met with President Barack Obama at the White House.

Menendez acknowledged passing the supplemental before the lame duck ends would not be easy. “I feel like I have to be Houdini to accomplish this, but we’re going to do this,” he said.

Landrieu, chairman of the Senate Appropriation Homeland Security Subcommittee, said the superstorm “in some ways has surpassed the devastation” of Hurricane Katrina, which caused massive damage to several Gulf Coast states in 2005. She said Congress “should not hold up any aid to people.”

Some Republicans, however, are likely to push for reductions in other federal programs to pay for at least some of the costs of the Sandy recovery measure. While it is far from clear whether such a bid could succeed, a serious drive for offsets could complicate and delay passage.

Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., raised the issue at a Senate Banking hearing Thursday. “I am looking forward to seeing a supplemental that is well-crafted and, I hope, properly offset,” he said.

At the same hearing, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said the administration wants the appropriations package for superstorm Sandy recovery passed this month.

“We will propose a supplemental this week that I hope you will see demonstrates that commitment,” said Donovan, adding that the administration is committed to a “full and complete recovery” and wants the supplemental cleared “in the next few weeks.”

“FEMA cannot, by statute, provide for a full recovery,” Donovan said. “They are a response organization. We need to take further steps through a supplemental this month to be able to move toward a fuller recovery.”

Donovan, who is the administration’s point man on Sandy recovery, did not offer a topline funding figure for the aid package, but it is likely to be in the tens of billions of dollars. He was due to meet later Thursday with Office of Management and Budget Chief Jeffrey Zients on the request. New York and New Jersey officials have estimated the cost of recovery in their states at about a combined $80 billion, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has floated a $60 billion package.

Trent Lott, who served as leader of Senate Republicans from 1996 to 2003 and helped craft Hurricane Katrina aid packages, said in a Wednesday interview that advocates for speedy clearance of the disaster aid should “be careful of what they put in” the bill.

“They are going to get what they need. The only question is, can they get it done right now?” Lott said. “One thing they have to be sure of, don’t let it start being loaded up with extraneous material. That will take it down.”

Landrieu added she did not expect to see a lot of extraneous spending requests on an aid package. “I think they would be very afraid to have to deal with people like Sen. Schumer if they tried to do that,” she said. “I think he is a very good guardian of that, along with the other members of that  . . .  very strong delegation, both House and Senate, both Republicans and Democrats. I don’t think people would want to mess with them.”

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