House Set to Vote on Partial Sandy Relief Bill

Fight on Sandy funding bill highlights regional rather than partisan splits.

House Speaker John Boehner upset some members with his decision to skip voting on emergency relief legislation, which would have allocated money to help victims of Hurricane Sandy.
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Cowing to bipartisan pressure, House Speaker John Boehner is bringing to the House floor Friday a measure to help fund recovery efforts for Hurricane Sandy, the superstorm that wreaked havoc in the Northeast, particularly ravaging New York and New Jersey.

Boehner had sought to delay passage of the $60 billion Senate-passed bill, which some in his party say is larded with unnecessary spending. But the speaker was pilloried by members of his own caucus—including a particularly scathing speech by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie Wednesday—and promised to bring the spending measure to the floor in two steps: a vote Friday on a $9 billion infusion of cash to the National Flood Insurance Program and a vote January 15 on the remaining $51 billion proposal.

If the House passes both measures, the Senate will have to vote on the package again because a new Congress was just sworn in.

[READ: Did Congress Mishandle the Hurricane Sandy Relief Bill?]

Sparking the ire of conservative House members, such as California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, was funding that was included in the Senate bill for non-Sandy related disaster relief, such as $150 million for ground fisherman in the Northeast.

"The requested funding would be used to provide both immediate economic relief to the region's struggling groundfish industry, and to make targeted investments that will allow the fleet to survive and become more sustainable in the years ahead," said Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins in a press release touting the funding.

Collins serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which put together the Senate bill after receiving recommendations from the White House. The White House based its request on proposals from governors from the affected region, including Christie and Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

An aide with the Senate Appropriations Committee confirmed that the groundfish money was added at the committee level, but not at the stage the other non-Sandy related aid was inserted. A Collins spokesperson defended the groundfish money, categorizing the measure as an "emergency supplemental" spending bill, not simply a Sandy relief package.

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"Senator Collins supported the emergency supplemental bill in the Senate which would not only provide much-needed assistance to victims of Superstorm Sandy, but also to others devastated by disaster," the spokesperson said in an E-mailed statement.

"In September, the U.S. Commerce Department declared a disaster in the Northeast groundfishing industry which makes it possible for Congress to appropriate funding to help alleviate the financial hardship caused by dwindling fish stock."

The measure also included $2 million to repair certain Smithsonian buildings in the greater D.C. area and $4 million to repair sand dunes near Kennedy Space Center in Florida due to Sandy-related damage, according to the spending request sent to Congress by the White House.

The White House request and Senate bill also included $23 million for planting trees to limit future flood damage and $41 million on military base repair primarily in New Jersey and Virginia, but also Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A Democratic Senate aide familiar with the bill says the portion that Issa and others are complaining about may not be Sandy related, but are disaster related and make up a small fraction of the bill's overall cost.

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"They are calling it pork. What it is, is damage from past disasters that were included in the bill to provide money. It's not like it's randomly tucked in," he says. "It might not be from Sandy, but the fisheries were damaged. It's basically trying to make [funds] whole. It's a moving vehicle to provide funds for disasters that happened in the past."

Looming fights over the debt ceiling and federal spending writ large have placed added pressure on any spending measure, even for disaster relief that typically would easily pass. New York and New Jersey lawmakers from both parties are quick to point out that the Sandy bill's price tag, $60 billion, is already pared down from the $80 billion requested by Cuomo and Christie.