Conservatives are taking aim at the pork-laden $50.7 billion Superstorm Sandy aid package that Northeastern governors and lawmakers hope to push through the House this coming week.
Too much of the aid will go to recovery efforts for past disasters and other projects unrelated to the late-October storm, they say.
The bill includes $150 million for what the Commerce Department described as fisheries disasters in places as far afield as Alaska and Mississippi, and $50 million in subsidies for replanting trees on private land damaged by wildfires.
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"Conservatives want to see a real plan that addresses real needs for Sandy," said Kansas Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp, who said the Sandy aid legislation should be focused on storm-related recovery.
The objections have led senior House Republicans to assemble a $17 billion proposal, that when combined already approved money for flood insurance claims, is less than half what President Barack Obama sought and the Senate passed in December.
"An emergency funding bill should focus on the emergency needs of the victims, not the needs of politicians," said Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, the senior Republican on Senate Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security.
"Loading up a massive $60.4 billion package with unrelated projects and earmarks for other states is not the way we should use taxpayer dollars."
Coats' scaled-back $23.8 billion Sandy aid bill was rejected by the Senate.
But now the Republican-controlled House has the chance to limit the spending to the areas that were hardest hit when Sandy slammed ashore.
House Speaker John Boehner intends to let the House vote on both the Senate bill and the scaled-back measure. He's responding both to conservatives who are opposed to more deficit spending, and to Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York, and Chris Christie of New Jersey, who are irate that the House hasn't acted sooner.
The $17 billion package will be brought to the floor by the House Appropriations Committee, and Northeast lawmakers will have a chance to add $33.7 billion more.
Critics are taking the sharpest aim at $12.1 billion in the amendment for Department of Housing and Urban Development emergency block grants. Any state struck by a federally declared major disaster in 2011, 2012 or this year would qualify for the grants.
And that includes all but three states — Arizona, South Carolina and Michigan are the only ones that have not suffered a disaster in the past two years — which means there will be incentives for lawmakers to vote for the measure to bring home money for their home districts, said Stephen Ellis, vice president of watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense.
"That's not a bad chunk of change, particularly if you are trying to get other lawmakers to vote for the bill," Ellis said.
State and local governments like block grants because they provide more flexibility in how the money is spent. The money can go toward a variety of needs, including hospitals, utilities, roads, small businesses and rent
The Northeast lawmakers' $33.7 billion amendment also includes more than $135 million to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to improve weather forecasting.
"A lot of the money goes to government agencies to rebuild rather than helping people actually afflicted by Sandy," Ellis said.
Included in the bill is $15 million to repair storm-damaged NASA facilities, even though the space agency itself said Sandy caused “minimal” damage.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona has taken aim at that provision along with $125 million for an Agriculture Department program to restore watersheds damaged by wildfires and drought, $2 million for roof repairs at Smithsonian Institution museums in the Washington area, and $50 million in tree planting subsidies.
A $60.4 billion storm aid package passed by the Senate in December also included $188 million for an Amtrak expansion project with an indirect link to Sandy: Officials say that new, long-planned tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station in Manhattan would be better protected against future flooding.
The Club for Growth, a conservative group, complained the Senate bill was overpriced, full of pork and would swell the federal deficit because other government programs weren't being cut to cover the costs of the legislation. That bill expired with the old Congress on Jan. 3. So whatever additional aid package the House passes would have to go back to the Senate for its approval.
Republicans also criticized $13 billion in the Senate bill for projects to protect against future storms, including fortification of mass transit systems in the Northeast and building new jetties in vulnerable seaside areas. While maybe worthwhile, those projects don't represent emergencies and shouldn't be exempt from federal spending caps, GOP lawmakers said.
The basic $17 billion before the House on Tuesday is aimed at immediate Sandy recovery needs, including $5.4 billion for New York and New Jersey transit systems and $5.4 billion for FEMA's disaster aid fund. The $33.7 billion amendment would bring the total up to the more than $60 billion sought by Obama and passed by Senate Democrats.
It includes the block grants for previous disasters, weather forecasting improvements and measures to minimize damage from future storms, but not the $188 million for the Amtrak expansion project.
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However Republican Rep. Michael Grimm of New York, whose Staten Island district was among the hardest hit by Sandy said he is confident the the full compensation package will pass. "We know it's going to be a heavy lift for the $33 billion, but we'll find the votes," he said.
Obama has signed a $9.7 billion replenishment of the national flood insurance fund to help pay claims from 115,000 homeowners, businesses and renters.
FEMA has spent more than $2 billion in disaster relief money for shelter, restoring power and other immediate needs arising from Sandy, the Oct. 29 storm that pounded the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Maine with hurricane-force winds and coastal flooding.
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