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Porked-up Sandy relief bill storms into Senate
The Senate’s emergency spending bill to cover costs from Hurricane Sandy includes millions of dollars that will never touch the affected Northeast — including money for salmon fisheries in Alaska, cash for an expansion of train service into New York, and funds to preserve and repair historic properties.
Lawmakers begin debating the bill Monday on the Senate floor, where the first thing they will confront is the size and scope of the $60.4 billion package, which aims to repair damage and to build protection against storms.
President Obama submitted his wish list to Congress, but senators added their own priorities. For example, Mr. Obama asked for $32 million to repair part of the Amtrak rail system not covered by insurance, but the Senate multiplied that request more than tenfold, to $336 million, with the extra money going to cover Amtrak’s operating losses and to increase train capacity into New York City.
The Sandy recovery bill also includes more than $500 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which amounts to a full tenth of what the agency spends per year, nationwide.
Part of that is $150 million for “fishery disasters,” which means money could flow to Mississippi’s blue crab and oyster industries, and to Alaska, where one senator said Chinook salmon have suffered.
“These much-needed funds will help make communities whole and hopefully help fund research on factors affecting Chinook returns,” Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat, said in a statement touting the funding.
Mr. Begich said some other money in the bill could be used to clean up debris on the Pacific Coast from the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan and rippled across the ocean.
Still, the vast majority of the money is slated to go to areas in the Northeast hit by Sandy, which left more than 100 dead and destroyed about 400,000 homes or buildings.
The Senate bill bypassed the committee process and is coming straight to the floor, where Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, announced that he would allow amendments — though he said he hopes to speed the bill through the chamber “very quickly.”
“I think part of the reason they’re trying to move this fast is they don’t want too many people paying attention,” said Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense. “There are clear needs that need to be met, there’s no doubt about that. Unfortunately, when you overreach you increase skepticism about the entire package.”
In the House, the process is slower, as Republican leaders grapple with the size of the bill and the fact that the administration didn’t propose any way to offset the cost.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, said last week that the House Appropriations Committee is still looking over the administration’s request.
“FEMA has indicated it has the money it needs to operate for at least a little while,” Mr. Cantor said, though he added that House leaders would make sure that “adequate funding does get to the victims of that very catastrophic storm.”
Part of the question for lawmakers is how much of the $60 billion is needed immediately.
The Congressional Budget Office said that the Senate bill will pay out only about 36 percent of the money over the next two years, meaning much of it is backloaded. Some lawmakers were wondering whether the bill could be split up and only the immediate needs be funded now.
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