UPDATE 1-US Senate Republicans aim to cut Sandy aid bill down to $24 bln

David Lawder
Reuters Middle East

* Republican plan would cover only immediate storm needs

* Requests for future damage prevention efforts chopped out

* Top Senate Democrat Reid vows to push full request by

week's end

WASHINGTON, Dec 19 (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Republicans

sought to slash a $60.4 billion aid bill to cover reconstruction

after Superstorm Sandy, proposing on Wednesday to fund only

$23.8 billion in immediate disaster relief while assessing

longer-term needs.

The far smaller initial amount is one of a number of

Republican amendments aimed at cutting projects from a bill that

they see as a "slush fund" loaded with questionable requests for

spending on unrelated programs and big infrastructure.

Senator Daniel Coats of Indiana said his plan for $23.8

billion in initial funding would provide sufficient money for

immediate needs through March 27, for work such as debris

cleanup, repairing damaged equipment, rebuilding destroyed homes

and businesses.

"It seems to me the most logical, responsible way to move

forward is to identify the immediate needs and provide the

immediate funding to meet those needs," said Coats, a member of

the Senate Appropriations Committee.

He said longer-term needs could be considered next year, as

Congress works on approving new money to keep government

agencies and programs funded after a stopgap measure runs out on

March 27.

Senate Democrats are trying to push through President Barack

Obama's full $60.4 billion Sandy disaster aid request before the

end of the year.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief

fund had about $4.3 billion as of Tuesday, but the request for

new funding has become tangled up with Congress' tense talks

over the year-end "fiscal cliff" of automatic tax hikes and

spending cuts.

"We don't have time right now to get all the way through and

analyze the actual losses that were attributable to Sandy," said

Republican senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, adding that the

full $60.4 billion looked like a "slush fund."


Democrats argue that the full funding amount is needed to

ensure that local businesses, municipalities and transit

agencies in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut can launch

full-fledged reconstruction projects immediately with the

confidence that they will be fully reimbursed. Without the money

approved, there will be delays, they say.

"This amendment will unnecessarily prolong the suffering of

those affected by Superstorm Sandy, and needlessly leave entire

communities vulnerable to future severe weather incidents,"

Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said in a

statement. "The whole nation will feel the economic impact of a

northeast crippled by languishing transportation infrastructure,

forsaken small businesses, and families left without homes."

The move would mark a significant shift from Congress'

actions following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the last storm to

wreak destruction on a similar scale as Sandy. Within two weeks

after Katrina's storm surge flooded New Orleans and other Gulf

Coast communities, Congress had appropriated $62.3 billion, and

storm costs eventually topped $100 billion.

"When we had the devastation in New Orleans, we got the aid

to those states very quickly," Senate Democratic leader Harry

Reid said on the Senate floor, noting that far more people were

affected by Sandy's path of destruction in a heavily populated


"We have to make a decision on this very, very important

legislation before we leave here this week," Reid said. "I would

hope that everyone would cooperate, but we have to do this."

The $23.8 billion offered in the Republican plan would be

less than 30 percent of the initial $82 billion aid request made

by New York, New Jersey and Connecticut earlier this month,

based on early damage estimates from the Oct. 29 storm.

The Republican plan would eliminate some $13 billion in

infrastructure improvements aimed at helping to prevent damage

from future storms. Among these are projects to keep New York

City subway tunnels from flooding and to build sand barriers to

protect some shorelines from storm surges.

It labels $5.4 billion to make transportation systems more

resilient as "non-Sandy related." The Amtrak passenger rail

agency, a frequent target of Republican budget-cutting efforts

would get only $32 million under the bill, instead of $336


Coats said such mitigation efforts were "long-term projects"

that should not be immediately funded without further study.

The Republicans also aim to cut out $150 million for

rebuilding fisheries, including those damaged by disasters in

Alaska and the Gulf Coast. It would exclude a $58.9 million

Department of Agriculture request to replant trees on private

property due to "unsubstantiated" estimates for damage from


The plan and other amendments to the Sandy aid measure are

expected to be considered on Thursday and Friday.

Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House of

Representatives, which normally acts first on spending bills, is

hanging back to see whether Senate Republicans are successful in

cutting the request down to size.

Asked if he would also proceed with an amount below the

$60.4 billion sought by Obama, House Appropriations Committee

Chairman Hal Rogers, a Republican from Kentucky, said: "Let's

see what the Senate does first."

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