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Senate Weighs ‘Pay Now or Pay Later’ Dilemma For Storm Package

Lawmakers considering an emergency package for Superstorm Sandy aid are struggling over whether it’s better to spend money only on immediate disaster relief or to fund investments that are needed for preventing future disasters.

Majority Leader Reid, D-Nev., on Wednesday night offered a substitute bill and then filed cloture and used procedural steps to block any further amendments without his consent.

Senate Republicans earlier Wednesday proposed paring back the scope of the Democrats’ $60.4 billion Sandy bill by nearly two-thirds to focus spending largely on immediate relief efforts. Dan Coats, R-Ind., who offered the amendment for a $24 billion aid package, said Republicans do not deny the need for future mitigation spending, but wanted “more time” to consider it.

A slimmed-down aid package likely has a better chance of moving in both chambers, but Democrats’ goal of clearing any deal by the end of the year might be in jeopardy with the legislative calendar shrinking. Senate leaders have yet to schedule a vote on the GOP alternative or dozens of other amendments, while House leaders have yet to say how they will handle the request.

In the absence of votes, senators have spent much of the week staking out views on what should be considered emergency spending.

“Long-term mitigation must be part of this discussion. We shouldn’t replace and rebuild what was damaged just as it was. We need to replace and rebuild smarter,” said Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Wednesday. “Sandy is a preview of what is to come.”

Republicans agree that some Sandy mitigation funding is necessary, but they want to consider the plans next year through the regular budget process. The current Senate bill (HR 1) would provide about $13 billion for mitigation, topping the $11.5 billion sought for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s immediate response efforts.

“I think we need future disaster mitigation activities. We need studies. We are experiencing climate situations which we never anticipated, certainly Hurricane Sandy was never anticipated by any of us,” John McCain, R-Ariz., said Tuesday, while also stressing that there was no need to provide for this work in the emergency bill.

McCain said considering the spending through the regular budget process next year would also reduce the chances for waste, fraud and abuse.

Many Republicans in both chambers also want to eliminate the bill’s funds for a wide range of other needs, such as helping Alaskan fisheries and making repairs to a NASA site in Florida.

Attaching such unrelated items to disaster aid bills once was routine business in Congress, as was quick passage of emergency spending for catastrophes.

Both chambers acted swiftly after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in late August in 2005. By Sept. 8, two emergency supplemental disaster appropriations measures (PL 109-6, PL 109-62) had been enacted, providing about $62.6 billion in aid. The House passed this first of these measures on voice vote and the Senate cleared it by unanimous consent.

But Congress has in recent years had great difficulty moving even its routine annual spending bills. The breakdown of the appropriations process this year has left the federal government running on a six-month continuing resolution (PL 112-175), a result that further exacerbates concerns among states hit by Sandy about waiting to get funding for mitigation projects.

“Realistically, the only way that these mitigation funds are going to be there is in this plan,” Rep. Robert E. Andrews, D-N.J., said of the Senate’s pending bill. “Everything we need should be in the supplemental, and it should be done as quickly as possible.”

James P. Moran of Virginia, a senior Democratic appropriator, said that some of the mitigation needs might be addressed in routine spending bills, which face budget caps, but that these efforts would fall short of what’s needed.

“It’s too much to do,” Moran said.

Indeed, White House budget projections signal that, given the current trajectory of federal spending, agencies involved in Sandy mitigation projects would have a hard time finding money for an expanded work list.

The Office of Management and Budget estimates that the Army Corps of Engineers’ annual spending on civil works will drop to $5.15 billion in fiscal 2017 from an expected $8.137 billion in fiscal 2013. Moreover, House appropriators are seeking to cut the corps’ civil works spending by $188 million — to $4.81 billion — while their Senate counterparts seek to provide an increase of just $5 million — less than 1 percent.

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