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Sandy aid package moving toward House votes

WASHINGTON — Northeastern lawmakers hoping to push a $50.7 billion Superstorm Sandy aid package through the House face roadblocks by fiscal conservatives seeking offsetting spending cuts to pay for recovery efforts as well as funding cuts for projects they say are unrelated to the Oct. 29 storm.

The amendments by budget hawks set up a faceoff Tuesday, 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 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 the 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, is urging lawmakers to oppose both Sandy aid measures. 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 strong support from Democrats and Republicans from the Northeast and other states for both the base $17 billion bill and the amendment for the additional $33.7 billion.

The House Rules Committee on Monday night approved 13 amendments for floor consideration, including one requiring spending offsets and four seeking to strike money for some projects either not directly related to Sandy or not seen as emergency spending.

"With that many amendments, one could sneak through," King said. "We should be able to defeat the important amendments though."

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 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 2013.

Mulvaney said he wasn't trying to torpedo the aid package with his amendment.

"This is not a poison pill," he said. "It's not designed for delay. ... I just want to try and find a way to pay for" Sandy aid.

Other amendments set for floor debate would cut $15 million for Regional Ocean Partnership Grants, $13 million for the National Weather Service ground readiness project, $1 million for the Legal Services Corporation and $9.8 million for rebuilding seawalls and buildings on uninhabited islands in the Steward McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in Connecticut.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, planned votes on both the $17 billion base bill and the 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 after 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.

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