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Congress Prepares to Handle White House’s $60.4 Billion Sandy Aid Package

The White House on Friday asked Congress for $60.4 billion in emergency aid for communities hit hard by superstorm Sandy, and argued that no spending cuts should be made to other programs to cover the new expense.

The first formal price tag on the storm that devastated the Northeast in late October, the request is likely to be the initial installment of federal aid needed to help the region’s recovery.

The large request presents a new challenge for Congress during its highly contentious lame-duck session, and it remains to be seen how much money lawmakers actually can clear quickly in a Sandy recovery package. Senate Democrats having set a goal of clearing an aid bill this month.

The White House already is seeking to counter conservatives’ potential objection to the hefty measure by arguing that last year’s debt accord (PL 112-25) allows for spending caps to be waived in the case of emergencies.

“The extraordinary destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy has created funding needs that meet this definition,” Jeff Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. “Accordingly, this emergency funding can and should be provided without offset.”

The request is in line with the $60 billion figure that Reid had suggested earlier in the week. Members of the New York and New Jersey delegations had balked at earlier reports of a disaster aid package in the $45 billion to $55 billion range, calling it insufficient.

Among the biggest expenses in the package are an about $6.2 billion for repairing public transportation and $13 billion aimed at creating safeguards against damage from future storms.

New York and New Jersey officials have stressed in recent weeks that the federal government must allow some waiving of agency rules in cases where they could impede needed recovery efforts. The White House proposal responded to this demand, noting for one key program, the community development block grants, that the disaster-aid package “must provide flexibilities for effective implementation.”

In a joint statement, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, praised the White House plan that will “afford maximum flexibility to state governments.”

Members of the New York and New Jersey delegations in Congress also were quick to describe the package as only an initial injection of aid for their region.

“This supplemental is a very good start, and while $60 billion doesn’t cover all of New York and New Jersey’s needs, it covers a large percentage,” said Democratic Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez of New Jersey and New York’s Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand in a joint statement.

A bipartisan statement from two New York House members echoed the point.

“While more may be needed in the long term, this robust package is a major first step that we will work to pass as quickly as possible in Congress to help devastated communities, families and businesses,” said Democrat Nita M. Lowey and Republican Peter T. King.

House Republicans will largely determine how fast Congress acts on the proposal and how much money can be cleared in December. Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, on Friday predicted it will be a “tough fight” to get the package cleared.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said on the House floor this week that moving a disaster-aid bill is a priority, but some Republicans in both chambers have said they want this recovery package to be offset.

“To the extent that the additional funding is focused on the emergency response to the disaster, under the reformed disaster funding process established last year, it would not need to be offset,” a GOP leadership aide said Friday evening.

Conservative Republicans have lost in recent bids to cut spending in other federal programs to offset the costs of disaster aid, and many GOP members in both chambers have expressed great sympathy for people living with the aftermath of the devastating storm. Still, House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., has suggested first moving a smaller package, perhaps within the budget cap set in last year’s debt accord (PL 112-25), which allows another $5 billion to be easily provided this year for disaster aid, and then coming back later with another package.

In discussing the aftermath of Sandy, lawmakers in both parties have compared it to the catastrophe that followed Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast in late August 2005. By Sept. 8, 2005, two emergency supplemental disaster appropriations measures (PL 109-6, PL 109-62) were enacted, providing about $62.6 billion in aid.

“It’s clear that this disaster has had devastating impacts on a scope not seen since Hurricane Katrina, and our hearts continue to be with those who have lost their loved ones, their livelihoods, their homes and their peace of mind,” Rogers in a statement Friday. But, he added, in “these tight-budget times,” Congress must make “the most of every single recovery dollar,”

Senate appropriators may be poised to break with convention and take the lead on crafting a disaster package, perhaps using one of the seven House-passed fiscal 2013 spending bills as a vehicle for a Sandy recovery package. “It is critical for Congress to pass a supplemental before the end of this year that includes resources for mitigating the impact of future disasters and provides necessary flexibility for a strong, efficient recovery,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

The White House on Friday also announced, in executive order accompanying the request, that it had set up a Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force of several federal agencies and named Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan to head the effort. Donovan already had been serving as the administration’s point person on these efforts.