WASHINGTON – House conservatives opposed to more deficit spending tried Monday to chip away at the $50.7 billion superstorm Sandy aid package by requiring offsetting spending cuts to pay for recovery efforts and by stripping money for projects they say are unrelated to the Oct. 29 storm or not urgently needed.
The push by budget hawks for amendments sets up a fight with Northeast lawmakers in both parties eager to provide recovery aid for one of the worst storms ever to strike the region as the House moves toward expected votes today on the emergency spending package.
The base $17 billion bill by the House Appropriations Committee is aimed at immediate Sandy recovery needs, including $5.4 billion for New York and New Jersey transit systems and $5.4 billion for Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief aid fund.
Northeast lawmakers will have a chance to add to that bill with an amendment by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., for an additional $33.7 billion, including $10.9 billion for public transportation projects.
The Club for Growth, a conservative group, on Monday urged lawmakers to oppose both Sandy aid measures.
“Congress shouldn’t keep passing massive ‘emergency’ relief bills that aren’t paid for, have little oversight, and are stuffed with pork,” the club said in a statement.
Sandy aid supporters, nonetheless, voiced confidence Monday they would prevail. The Senate passed a $60.4 billion Sandy aid package in December with bipartisan support.
“We have more than enough votes, I’m confident of that,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., claiming a base of strong support from Democrats as well as Republicans from the Northeast and other states for both the base $17 billion bill and the amendment for the additional $33.7 billion.
King said GOP leaders told him to expect 12 to 15 amendments on the floor. The House Rules Committee was deciding which among more than 90 proposed amendments, many from conservatives seeking to strike additional aid for past disasters and some projects not directly related to Sandy, would advance to the floor for consideration.
“With that many amendments, one could sneak through,” King said. “We should be able to defeat the important amendments, though.”
Meanwhile, the House overwhelmingly approved, on a 403-0 vote Monday night, a bill to change FEMA regulations that critics blame for slowing down recovery efforts. The bill would let FEMA make limited repairs to victims’ homes in place of lease payments or the traditional agency trailers.
It also would permit FEMA to make disaster grants based on estimated damage costs instead of waiting for states and communities to seek reimbursement for repairs, and it would established an “expedited” federal environmental review process for projects for protecting against future storms.
As with past natural disasters, the $50.7 billion Sandy aid package does not provide for offsetting spending cuts, meaning the aid comes at the cost of higher deficits. The lone exception is an offset provision in the Frelinghuysen amendment requiring that the $3.4 billion for Army Corps of Engineers projects to protect against future storms be paid for by spending cuts elsewhere in the fiscal year 2013 budget.
Conservative Reps. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., Tom McClintock, R-Calif., Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., and Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., offered an amendment to offset the $17 billion base bill with spending cuts of 1.6 percent for all discretionary appropriations for fiscal year 2013.
“I believe we can provide that relief while finding ways to pay for it, rather than adding to the nation’s ballooning deficit,” said Mulvaney.
Another amendment proposed by conservatives would cut federal employee transit subsidies, end the Agriculture Department’s Direct Payment Program to farmers and ban further obligations from the Troubled Asset Relief Program used to restore credit markets and bolster banks and other businesses after the 2008 financial collapse.
Direct payments are a farm subsidy that the government pays to farmers regardless of crop price or crop yield or whether they even farm. Both the House and Senate Agriculture committees have proposed eliminating direct payments and using their $5 billion annual cost for other farm programs and pay down the deficit.
A McClintock amendment would strip $12.1 billion included in the Frelinghuysen proposal for Housing and Urban Development emergency block grants that could go to states far from Sandy’s path.
Under the Frelinghuysen proposal, any state struck by a federally declared major disaster in 2011, 2012 or this year would qualify to seek the grants.
House Speaker John Boehner planned votes on both the $17 billion base bill and Frelinghuysen proposal for $33.7 billion more. He’s responding both to conservatives who are opposed to more deficit spending, and to pointed criticism from Govs. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., and Chris Christie, R-N.J., who are fuming because the House hasn’t acted sooner.
Boehner decided on New Year’s Day to delay a scheduled vote then after nearly two-thirds of House Republicans rebelled over a bill allowing taxes to rise on families making more than $450,000 a year because it included only meager spending cuts. Christie called the speaker’s action “disgusting.”
The Senate’s $60.4 billion bill on Sandy relief expired with the previous Congress on Jan. 3. But about $9.7 billion was money for replenishing the government’s flood insurance fund to help pay Sandy victims, and Congress approved that separately earlier this month. Whatever emerges from the House this week is scheduled for debate in the Senate next week after President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
FEMA has spent about $3.1 billion in disaster relief money for shelters, restoring power and other immediate needs after the storm pounded the Atlantic Coast with hurricane-force winds. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were the hardest hit.
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.