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Democrats Seek GOP Support for Monday Disaster Aid Vote

Senate Democrats believe they can marshal enough GOP support to pass a wide-ranging $60.4 billion Superstorm Sandy recovery package that would go far beyond simply addressing the immediate needs of hard-hit communities.

Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, said he is “hopeful” of getting needed GOP support for the bill, which might be brought up in the chamber Monday. The measure likely will face a procedural motion requiring 60 votes for it to proceed.

“We’re working on Republicans,” Schumer told reporters Thursday. “We’re not there yet, that’s for sure.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said work was under way to reach a deal Thursday afternoon to be able to take up the emergency spending bill Monday.

“We hope that  . . .  we’ll be in a position to enter an order that we would move to” the spending package, Reid said. He added that the Senate could convene earlier than normal Monday in order to begin debate on the measure.

Many Republicans have argued that Congress should move more slowly in response to Sandy and should also seek cuts in other federal programs to pay for at least some of the relief expenses. Schumer and other Democrats have argued that a “robust” and immediate approach is needed, allowing federal agencies, states, towns, small businesses and homeowners to begin responding to the destruction caused by the storm. They oppose including offsets for this spending.

“Every senator, no matter what their party, ought to think about what will happen if a disaster strikes their area,” Schumer said.

Many Republicans already are indicating that the Sandy package may need to be scaled back, particularly in terms of long-term mitigation projects. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who has been supportive of emergency Sandy aid, questions the need to quickly provide about $13 billion for projects to reduce future flood risks, which he said may be more appropriately funded through the annual appropriations process.

“That’s not necessarily a part of dealing with emergency damage to victims of Hurricane Sandy in the next four or five months,” said Alexander, who is the ranking Republican on the Appropriations panel that funds the Army Corps of Engineers. “So that may not be a part of this bill.”

Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the ranking Republican on the Interior-Environment Appropriations subcommittee, whose panel also is examining the draft bill, said she sees the bill’s proposed mitigation spending as being “in excess of the request for immediate relief.”

“What is a must-have  . . .  in this fiscal year? What is going to be nice to have, and can it be rolled into the regular budget process?” she said.

John Cornyn of Texas, who will be the Senate GOP minority whip in the 113th session of Congress, questioned the need to immediately appropriate funds that won’t be spent for many years. According to a Congressional Budget Office estimate, about $15 billion of the money to be provided by the Senate bill would be spent between the year beginning Oct. 1, 2016, and the year ending Sept. 30, 2022.

“By definition, it’s not an emergency if it’s needed 10 years from now,” Cornyn said. “It could be handled with the regular course of business through the appropriations process.”

Even Republicans whose own states are frequent victims of hurricanes have reservations about the pending Senate bill.

“Being from Florida, I anticipate that one day, unfortunately, we may have another storm of that sort of magnitude. So we definitely want to get them help, but at the same time, I want to see what’s in it,” said Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “It’s got to be reasonable and storm-related. I want to make sure that there are not things in there that don’t belong.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee measure released Wednesday is intended to pump money immediately into programs that will quickly funnel aid to people who suffered losses from the late October storm, and to allocate billions to allow for long-term planning on major projects to begin immediately.

If the Senate bill is enacted, only about $8.97 billion would be spent in the current budget year, which ends Sept. 30, 2013, according to CBO. More than half of this, $5.3 billion, represents expected outlays from the National Flood Insurance Program. Another $1.2 billion of expected actual fiscal 2013 spending would come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund.

A key driver of this spending would be the Community Development Fund, which the Senate bill envisions as a flexible tool to allow communities to address a wide variety of needs, such as restoring damaged housing. Spending from that account would jump to $3.4 billion in fiscal 2014 from $75 million in fiscal 2013. Fiscal 2015 spending would represent a peak for this program, with the CBO seeing $3.8 billion spent.

Schumer said the advance funding is critical to the recovery effort. “If a locality is going to rebuild a road or tunnel, they need to know that the money is there to sign the contract, to know that they will be reimbursed,” Schumer said. “You can’t say, ‘We’ll fix a large tunnel, the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. We’ll fix the tunnel, about a half a mile of it this year, and then we’ll see if we can get the money next year.’”

Schumer also said CBO may be looking at what happened after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina as the model, but in that catastrophe, many people didn’t return home and begin seeking federal aid to rebuild homes for many months.

In general, the Senate bill closely resembles the White House’s $60.4 billion request made on Dec. 7, but it adds some new spending not specifically mentioned in the Obama administration’s proposal. Included would be $125 million for a Department of Agriculture watershed program that could help Colorado cope with the aftermath of the summer’s wildfires and $50 million for the National Parks Service’s Historic Preservation Fund. The Sandy bill also would include $150 million for fisheries that have faced recent disasters in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as New England, said Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who had sought this funding to address the marine debris washing up on the coasts of Western states from the Japan earthquake of March 2011.

“The failure of Chinook returns in 2010, 2011 and 2012 had a devastating impact on commercial and subsistence fisheries in Alaska,” Begich said in a written statement. “These much-needed funds will help make communities whole and hopefully help fund research on factors affecting Chinook returns.”

Niels Lesniewski and Geof Koss contributed to this story.

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