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Republicans Say They Expect Spending Offsets for Sandy Disaster Aid

Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, signaling that Republicans may revive last year’s battles over offsets to disaster aid relief, says he expects that any package to help Northeast states hit by the superstorm Sandy will have to including matching cuts in spending elsewhere in the federal budget.

“We always help communities during disasters,” he said Wednesday after having met earlier in the day with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is pushing for quick passage of an aid package. “The difference you have got now is that it is going to have to be offset.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he does not expect to have a confrontation with GOP members over aid.

“This is something that I think is important that we do as soon as we can. We want to make sure that the numbers are basically in the ballpark,” the Nevada Democrat said. “I’ve been told that the Republicans in the House agree that this is something that need not be paid for, and I hope that, in fact, is the case because if there were ever an act of God, an emergency, this is it.”

Lawmakers are waiting to see how much the White House will seek for an initial disaster relief package to aid communities hard-hit by Sandy, which devastated portions of coastal New Jersey and metropolitan New York City. Officials from the region said in meetings on Capitol Hill on Wednesday that they want the White House to seek an $80 billion aid package for the region.

Spearheading efforts for a large disaster aid package, and one to be moved through Congress without offsets, is the No. 3 Senate Democrat, Charles E. Schumer of New York. Schumer and other senators met Wednesday evening with acting Office of Management and Budget Director Jeff Zients. Schumer said he also met with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan late Tuesday.

Schumer, who believes several disaster bills may be needed to address the recovery, said he thought the formal aid request would come by Dec. 4 and that it would include a request for substantial funding and the ability to ease some current funding restrictions.

“We are laying out to the administration specifically what we need in terms of the number, but also in terms of flexibility,” Schumer said. “We have 300,000 badly damaged houses. The maximum that FEMA gives, $31,900, won’t rebuild those houses for people who don’t have insurance or whose insurance doesn’t cover it, and we need … flexibility, which we can’t propose anymore under the earmark rules, and the administration has to.”

But a larger measure almost certainly will be more difficult to pass, especially as leaders in Congress and the president are trying to negotiate the big tax and spending measures around the fiscal cliff. Budget hawk Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said the way the package is designed will determine how much resistance it encounters.

“It depends on how they go about doing it. There needs to be an assessment of what the real need is,” he said, adding there will need to be savings found elsewhere to make up for new spending. “There’s going to be an effort on my part to pay for it.”

Conservative Republicans lost last year on a bid to build offsets into proposed fiscal 2012 supplemental disaster aid, and it’s far from clear they can prevail in a similar bid this year. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., a senior appropriator whose state also was hit by Sandy, said she expects the disaster aid package to pass, especially with families who lost their homes and suffered other losses still struggling to recover.

“People will see how really serious this is, and I think we are going to be able to get it through,” Mikulski said. “We are going into the holidays. The poignancy of this disaster at this particular season should soften even the tightest grip on the wallet.”

It’s unclear how the disaster aid bill will move through Congress. Leaders might opt to put it forth as a stand-alone bill. The package also could be added to a lame-duck measure meant to buy Congress more time to negotiate a major deal on the budget that would seek to push the scheduled automatic spending cuts under sequester into next year.

A third option would be to attach the disaster aid bill to a catchall fiscal 2013 spending bill, which appropriators in both parties and chambers hope to clear in December. The chances for an omnibus appear slim, with leadership aides in both parties and chambers noting Congress must first deal with the fiscal cliff before returning to unfinished fiscal 2013 appropriations.

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