US Senate takes up $60 bln Sandy bill amid charges of waste

David Lawder
Reuters Middle East

* Conservative groups say storm aid bill loaded with "pork"

* Republicans eye amendments to restrict package

* Democrats: Money needed up front for large rebuilding


WASHINGTON, Dec 17 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Monday

began debating a $60.4 billion aid bill to rebuild communities

devastated by Superstorm Sandy amid criticism by conservative

groups who said the measure was loaded with wasteful,

non-disaster spending.

The Democratic-controlled Senate is looking to pass the

disaster aid bill this week. But Republicans, wary of its huge

price tag in the midst of tense debt and deficit negotiations in

Washington, are likely to try to ratchet back some of its

provisions through amendments.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is taking a slower,

more painstaking approach to analyzing the Obama

administration's request for funding to rebuild coastal

communities largely in New York and New Jersey, repair

transportation infrastructure there and provide other aid.

The House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, a

Kentucky Republican, hopes to move an aid measure before

year-end but has been considering a smaller initial bill aimed

at meeting immediate disaster needs.

The conservative Club for Growth urged senators to vote

against the Sandy relief bill, saying that it contained a lot of

"immaterial" spending.

"When a natural disaster occurs, there is a textbook

response by Congress - they cobble together an overpriced bill

that isn't paid for, there's no accountability or oversight, and

it's filled with pork. This proposal is no different," the group

said in an email to senators.

Among spending items in the Senate bill drawing the ire of

Washington conservatives is one seeking $150 million for fishery

disasters in Alaska and Mississippi - thousands of miles from

the Sandy damage. The bill also includes a request of $50

million for the National Park Service's historic preservation

fund and nearly $9 million to replace vehicles and other

equipment used by the Departments of Justice and Homeland


Even some local New Jersey politicians criticized the bill.

"A full 5 percent of the appropriation request is earmarked

for the replacement of federal assets, rather than rebuilding

and aid efforts in the tri-state area," New Jersey State Senator

Joe Pennacchio, a Republican, said in a statement, referring to

New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

The three states had initially requested $82 billion in aid,

although damage estimates were expected to rise over time. Some

of the rebuilding costs were expected to be covered by private


Some lawmakers are also questioning the bill's inclusion of

infrastructure upgrades aimed at mitigating damage from future

storms. For example, $5.5 billion would be allocated to the

Federal Transit Administration to make transportation systems

more resilient in high winds and floods, including efforts to

keep tunnels from flooding.

Republicans also questioned the need to push through the

full $60.4 billion at once, given that the Congressional Budget

Office estimates that only about $9 billion in aid will be

disbursed in 2013.

"Let's do this in a real way. Look at how much we're going

to spend each year, and do it on an annual basis," Senator Bob

Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, told Reuters last week.

But Democrats, displaying large photographs of flooded

subway stops and houses turned into splinters, defended the bill

on Monday, saying that Congress has always provided disaster

recovery aid and the need after Sandy was massive.

Appropriating funds in small increments was unworkable, they

argued, because transit agencies, businesses and communities

needed certainty that reimbursement money will be available or

they cannot start reconstruction projects.

Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said this

was particularly important for large, multi-year transit

projects - such as those required in his state.

"If we don't put up the money, then some of the rebuilding

will wait. A piecemeal recovery is a stalled recovery,"

Menendez said.

Senate Republican aides did not immediately have details on

their party's proposed amendments.

The Obama administration, which requested the $60.4 billion

aid packages just over a week ago, signaled that it is willing

to accept some changes, saying in a statement that it "looks

forward to working with the Congress to refine the legislation."

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