Senate turns to Sandy aid bill Monday

December 13, 2012 - 7:33 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate will be turning its attention to a $60.4 billion disaster aid package for Superstorm Sandy victims next week while President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner try to avert the "fiscal cliff" of spending cuts and tax increases.

The Senate will start debating the bill Monday afternoon. Republicans said they had no objections after Democratic leader Harry Reid assured them on Thursday they could offer amendments to the bill.

It's unclear if the bill could become part of the fiscal cliff negotiations or not. The measure could face a tough fight on Capitol Hill, especially from GOP fiscal conservatives wary of approving such large spending so quickly.

House Republicans are looking at a smaller initial package to cover immediate needs while awaiting more detailed evidence on damages for additional spending. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund still has about $4.8 billion, enough to pay for recovery efforts into early spring.

As is customary with natural disasters, the request was not accompanied by offsetting spending cuts to defray its cost. Some fiscal conservatives want spending offsets to pay for all or part of the bill.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that only about $9 billion of the $60.4 billion proposed would be spent over the next nine months. An additional $12 billion would be spent the following year. The bill has many large infrastructure projects that often require years to complete. Some Republicans say the CBO estimate undercuts the urgency of the aid package.

Several Republicans, wary of the size of the package and the rush by Democrats to pass it, have said they want to see more detailed evidence to ensure the money is needed to cover storm damages.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said he favors a slower approach before spending so much money.

"We need far more information," he said. "How much is absolutely needed now? That's all we should really be considering now, the short-term needs. And then get some real information in."

GOP critics have begun questioning the need for some of the bill's spending, citing as one example its $2 million for roof repairs at Smithsonian Institution museums and support facilities in the Washington area.

Most of the money — $47.4 billion — is for immediate help for victims and other recovery and rebuilding efforts. There is also $13 billion for efforts to protect against future storms, spending that some Republicans question because it is not emergency-related.