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January 13, 2013

Sandy relief package swells aid for past disasters

WASHINGTON — Conservatives and watchdog groups are mounting a “not-so-fast” campaign against a $50.7 billion Superstorm Sandy aid package that Northeastern governors and lawmakers hope to push through the House this coming week.

Their complaint is that lots of the money that lawmakers are considering will actually go toward recovery efforts for past disasters and other projects unrelated to the late-October storm.

A Senate-passed version from the end of the last Congress included $150 million for what the Commerce Department described as fisheries disasters in Alaska, Mississippi and the Northeast, and $50 million in subsidies for replanting trees on private land damaged by wildfires.

The objections have led senior House Republicans to assemble their own $17 billion proposal, that when combined with already approved money for flood insurance claims, is less than half what President Barack Obama sought and the Senate passed in December

That $17 billion package will be brought to the floor by the House Appropriations Committee, and Northeast lawmakers will have a chance to add $33.7 billion more.

House Speaker John Boehner intends to let the House vote on both measures. He’s responding both to conservatives who are opposed to more deficit spending, and to Govs. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., and Chris Christie, R-N.J., who are irate that the House hasn’t acted sooner.

Critics are taking the sharpest aim at $12.1 billion in the amendment for Department of Housing and Urban Development emergency block grants. Any state struck by a federally declared major disaster in 2011, 2012 or this year would qualify for the grants, and that’s just about all the states, said Stephen Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group. Only South Carolina, Arizona and Michigan would not qualify, he said.

“That’s not a bad chunk of change, particularly if you are trying to get other lawmakers to vote for the bill,” Ellis said.

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