WASHINGTON - The House moved toward action Tuesday on a $50.7 billion Superstorm Sandy aid package that Northeast lawmakers hoped could be approved despite attempts by fiscal conservatives to eliminate unrelated projects and to gain offsetting spending cuts to cover the costs of the bill. Amendments offered by opponents of full funding set up a faceoff on the emergency spending package, with Northeast lawmakers in both parties eager to provide recovery aid for one of the worst storms ever to strike the region.
"I urge my colleagues to show fundamental humanity and pass the bill today," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., noting it has been more than seven weeks since the storm struck.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., complained that billions of dollars would go for projects that are not urgently needed.
"It's supposed to be for emergency repairs," said McClintock.
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.
Lawmakers emerging from a private meeting of House Democrats Tuesday morning said they were urged to support the bill despite imperfections.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said after the meeting that he believed the full Sandy measure would pass. He said he was expecting about 50 Republican votes for the $33 billion portion of the measure, and he said he believed the votes would be there for the $17 billion portion and to defeat a GOP across-the-board spending cut amendment as well.
"I think we'll be all right," he said.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said Congress had waited far too long to act, 79 days after the storm struck.
"It is imperative that we pass this package today," said Lowey.
The House is considering 13 amendments, 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.
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.
Sandy aid supporters are most concerned about the amendment by conservative Reps. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., Tom McClintock, R-Calif., Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., and Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., to offset the $17 billion base bill with spending cuts of 1.6 percent for all discretionary appropriations for 2013.
Northeast lawmakers said passage of the Mulvaney amendment could complicate prospects for quick action on the broader Sandy aid package in the Senate, which passed a $60.4 billion aid package with bipartisan support that does not have offsetting spending cuts.
Other amendments set for floor debate would cut $150 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.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent about $3.1 billion in disaster relief money for shelters, restoring power and other immediate needs after the Oct. 29 storm pounded the Atlantic Coast with hurricane-force winds and coastal flooding. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were the hardest hit.
Sandy is the most costly natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and was blamed for 140 deaths. The storm damaged or destroyed 305,000 housing units in New York and more than 265,000 businesses were disrupted there, officials have said. In New Jersey, more than 346,000 households were destroyed or damaged and more than 40,000 families remain living out of their homes, according to officials.