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Sandy Disaster Aid Bill May Emerge Soon

The text of an emergency spending bill to help pay for recovery from superstorm Sandy could surface as early as tonight, according to one senior appropriator.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, said that the top-line number is still in question.

“All of us want to help … with true emergency spending during this year for victims of Hurricane Sandy,” Alexander said. “So the only question for us is what’s that number.”

He said there are other spending programs that are reviewed every year in the appropriations process that can also provide aid. A Senate Appropriations Committee aide confirmed that work to craft the legislative package is ongoing.

In addition, one senior Democratic senator said Democrats are pressing Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to expedite the process of getting the spending bill to the floor as soon as this week, possibly jettisoning a transaction account guarantee program measure (S 3637) in the process.

“If we move to it now, we could get it done tomorrow. We should get it done as soon as possible,” the senator said.

The developments come as Republicans pointed to a preliminary document prepared by the Congressional Budget Office to suggest that the full $60.4 billion requested by the Obama administration to pay for storm recovery is not needed yet and that it may be possible to dispense it in tranches with additional controls to prevent waste, fraud and abuse. Less than $10 billion would be paid out during the 2013 fiscal year, according to the CBO analysis.

More immediate higher levels of budget authority may in fact be needed for major construction projects, even if all of the money is not spent before the end of the fiscal year in September 2013. Local governments may find it difficult to contract for rehabilitation of a damaged subway tunnel, for instance, without some assurance that the funds will be available in future fiscal years.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman emphasized that point.

“To take the full amount would be consistent with what we have done,” the Connecticut independent said. “To appropriate the full amount is what we’ve done with almost any other natural disaster anywhere in the country.

“There is no reason to make an exception.”

Democratic appropriators know, however, that they must secure 60 votes in order to advance the package on the floor. While the House normally moves first on appropriations bills, the Senate has no shortage of House-passed legislative vehicles that could carry the measure. While the House and Senate may disagree on whether the Constitution requires spending measures to originate in the House, the Senate may use the shell of a House bill to avoid unneeded obstruction or delay, particularly for must-pass measures.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking member on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is among the likely crossover votes needed for any package.

“I’ve asked questions of Secretary [Janet] Napolitano about how the number was derived — whether it was due to the preliminary damage assessments that FEMA is required to do by law or whether the states put together their estimates, and I’m awaiting more information on that,” she said.

Collins said she was seeking “assurance that there are internal controls sufficient to ensure that the money is not wasted.”

“It’s very difficult to assess whether $60 billion is the right dollar amount, whether $40 billion is the right amount,” she said.

Collins, who also serves as the top Republican on the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, said that panel was reviewing parts of the request within its jurisdiction.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona said the supplemental came up for discussion at a Senate GOP lunch Wednesday afternoon. Some Republicans raised questions about the level of detail provided by the Office of Management and Budget about the request, which includes $15 billion for flexible Community Development Block Grant funding and $11.5 billion for Federal Emergency Management Agency activities.

“We haven’t seen an analysis of what insurance covers and what’s not covered, and so I think, to be responsible, first we need to meet the needs of folks who are there, but that’s immediate,” South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint said.

DeMint added that he would prefer a smaller bill now to meet immediate needs with additional funds coming with a continuing resolution next year that would fund the government past March.

At a discussion Wednesday, several House conservatives said they would demand offsets for any appropriations supplemental to address Sandy’s devastation.

“If we can’t come together and find $60 billion in savings in the face of this tragedy, then do you really think we’re going to be able to balance the budget?” asked Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C.

“We have these emergencies happen every year,” said Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, R-Idaho. “That should be a part of our budget planning.”

Ben Weyl and Alan K. Ota contributed to this report.

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