* Passage could hinge on success of "fiscal cliff" deal
* New York, New Jersey, Connecticut bore storm's brunt
* Includes money to help mitigate future natural disasters
By Doug Palmer and David Lawder
WASHINGTON, Dec 28 The U.S. Senate on Friday
approved a $60.4 billion aid package to pay for reconstruction
costs from Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged mid-Atlantic and
northeastern states, after defeating Republican efforts to trim
the bill's cost.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urged the
Republican-controlled House of Representatives to quickly take
up the bill, which includes $12 billion to repair and strengthen
the region's transportation system against future storms.
"There is no time to waste," Reid said.
Both chambers have to agreed on a package by Jan. 2, when
the current term of Congress is expected to end, or restart the
process of crafting legislation in 2013. The Senate approved the
bill 62-32, with most Republicans voting no.
"We beat back all of the crippling amendments," said Senator
Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, which suffered the
largest monetary damage in the storm.
"The century-old tradition of different parts of the country
rallying to help those who are beleaguered because of difficult
natural disasters continues," Schumer said.
The bill's chances in the next few days could depend on
whether President Barack Obama and congressional leaders reach a
deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" of tax increases and spending
cuts set to begin taking effect in the new year.
House Republican leaders have not yet decided whether to
take up the Senate bill, a Republican aide said.
The bill also provides $17 billion in Community Development
Block Grants to help rebuild homes, schools, hospitals and other
buildings destroyed by the late October storm, help small
businesses and improve the power infrastructure.
Senate Republicans complained the $60.4 billion
reconstruction package requested by Obama is more than the
annual budgets for the departments of Interior, Labor, Treasury
and Transportation combined.
HOUSE ACTION UNCLEAR
Senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, offered an
alternative that would have provided $23.8 billion in funding to
help victims of the storm through the end of March and give
Congress time to determine additional needs.
"Let me just say, we simply are allowing three months for
the Congress of the United States, the representatives of the
taxpayers' dollars, to assess, document and justify additional
expenditures that go beyond emergency needs," Coats said just
before his amendment was defeated.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, a
Republican from Kentucky, would still prefer to pass a stop-gap
bill to meet immediate needs and wait to do another package
after better estimates come in, a committee aide said.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated about $8.97
billion of the Senate bill would be spent in 2013, with another
$12.66 billion spent in 2014 and $11.59 billion spent in 2015.
The Senate bill is considerably less than the $82 billion in
aid requested by New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the
states that bore the brunt of damage from the storm.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, was in
Washington this month, lobbying lawmakers for the larger amount.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief
fund now has less than $5 billion available.
The damage to New York and New Jersey coastal areas was on a
scale not seen since Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast
and flooded New Orleans in 2005. Two weeks after that storm hit,
Congress approved $62.3 billion in emergency appropriations.
Lawmakers passed numerous subsequent emergency funding
requests over several years to cover damages from Katrina, which
topped $100 billion. A number of Gulf State Republicans
supported the Sandy relief bill.
Republicans were successful in requiring offsetting spending
cuts for $3.4 billion in mitigation work to prevent future
disasters. Some Democrats said this would set a precedent for
future disaster aid bills.