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Senate Democrats Warn GOP on Sandy Aid

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Schumer said he is hopeful the Senate can pass the $60.4 billion disaster aid bill to help areas hit by Superstorm Sandy. The New York Democrat said GOP lawmakers could regret trying to scale back the package if their districts are the next to be hit by natural disasters.

Senate Democratic leaders are warning their GOP colleagues that Republican opposition to a Superstorm Sandy aid package could “boomerang” on them if disasters strike their home regions.

New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the chamber’s No. 3 Democrat, specifically chided Republican colleagues from the Gulf Coast and other regions prone to disaster for seeking to scale back and restrict a $60.4 billion aid bill currently on the Senate floor.

“We’re hopeful because members will see that if they start putting new barriers in the way of disaster relief it could boomerang on them. Their region could be next,” Schumer told reporters in the Capitol. “I am hopeful that at the end of the day, we will have the votes.”

Senate Republicans on Wednesday proposed a $23.8 billion alternative that would scale back funding by nearly two-thirds to focus spending largely on immediate relief efforts that would go through late March. That measure would strip out about $13 billion that Democrats have proposed for mitigation spending for long-term work aimed at preparing for future disasters.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said at a news conference Thursday afternoon that the disaster bill remains a top priority before the Senate breaks for Christmas and warned GOP opponents not to delay it.

“When [Hurricane] Irene struck, we acted very quickly. We didn’t look and say, ‘Well let’s see, Alabama has two Republican senators, Mississippi has two Republican senators, Texas has two Republican senators. Louisiana has one Republican senator, maybe this isn’t the right time to do it,’” the Nevada Democrat said.

“We shouldn’t have to wait months to help people in the Northeast,” added Reid, noting he would like the bill wrapped up in 24 hours.

Congress long has adhered to the idea that communities can’t handle disasters on their own and has provided federal assistance knowing such events could happen to them, Schumer said.

“You want to break that chain? There could be real trouble for disaster relief, particularly for areas that are prone to disasters,” Schumer said.

He also criticized the GOP’s narrower alternative as problematic for planning rebuilding efforts.

“Anyone who’s done anything with disasters, any businessman can tell you: You can’t budget for three months and then say we’ll come back later,” he said.

Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt said on the Senate floor that the federal government should indeed help but that $60.4 billion proposal “is not the best way to deal with this at this time.” He pushed for the GOP alternative on the Senate floor that would offer money for immediate response efforts now, absent of mitigation costs, and weigh future costs later.

“Eventually, we may spend more than $60.4 billion, but my view would be there are probably better ways to approach this than appropriating that money right now as opposed to appropriating it later when we really know what it’s for,” he said.

Blunt noted that aid for Hurricane Katrina recovery came in the form of three supplemental spending measures.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., doubted the bill’s prospects in the House, where fiscal cliff negotiations are taking priority. “It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere,” he said.

Senate Democrats appear increasingly anxious to woo the needed GOP support.

Senate passage of a broad-ranging measure would at the least strengthen the hand of Senate Democrats if they end up in conference negotiations on a final bill, one of the paths forward for the measure. A scaled-back version of the Sandy bill might also end up attached to a final year-end wrap-up measure addressing the fiscal cliff of looming tax cuts and automatic spending cuts.

The more expansive $60.4 billion measure has faced criticism from Republicans in both chambers, with Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, a senior GOP appropriator, on Wednesday offering the slimmed-back Republican alternative intended to address the immediate needs of communities hit hard by the late October storm.

Reid introduced a new version of the $60.4 billion measure on Wednesday night that served at least two purposes. It effectively forced the Senate to start over on the bill, eclipsing a procedural tactic that Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., had attempted to use to make greater changes in how disaster relief is handled in the United States.

The new Democratic measure was little changed from the previous one, but it did contain what Republicans see as a sweetener to draw votes from those in the party whose own regions have had recent setbacks. Both measures include $17 billion for the Community Development Fund, with $100 million intended in the original measure for regions that suffered major disasters or for aiding “small, economically distressed areas” with perhaps less severe calamities declared in 2011 and 2012. The new amendment bumps this figure to $500 million, which could have the effect of making such funds more widely available.

Sarah Chacko contributed to this report.

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