Senate Democrats today opened debate over a $60.4 billion aid package for Superstorm Sandy victims by assuring their colleagues that there's no wasteful spending in the emergency package -- and no spending that could be characterized as "stimulus."
"We're not simply rubber stamping a request," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said on the Senate floor.
"As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I know the budget constraints we are facing," he added, noting that the committee reviewed the package to ensure the money is used "as efficiently and effectively as can be."
Seven weeks after Sandy ravaged the East Coast, the federal relief funding could have a hard time getting past Republican concerns about the size of the package. House Republicans reportedly plan on voting on a smaller package, even though President Obama's request for $60.4 billion is about $20 billion less than what officials from New York and New Jersey asked for.
Some Republicans have questioned whether the money is needed right away, while others have suggested the spending should be offset with spending cuts elsewhere. Some conservatives have complained of unnecessary money in the bill. Even one House Republican from New Jersey, Rep. Scott Garrett, said of the emergency aid, "One person's stimulus is another person's wasteful spending."
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., today insisted "there's no 'stimulus' type money here." There is, as he described it, "mitigation money" that will go to not only rebuild infrastructure but improve it.
"So if there's another storm, you don't suffer the same damage," he explained. "You don't simply rebuild the South St. subway station the same way... Much of [the subway] was built over 100 years ago, there was no thought of such floods."
New York alone, Schumer said, suffered $7.3 billion in damage to its transportation systems. The bill would provide $10.8 billion in relief for public transportation in multiple states.
While Democrats defended the bill on the Senate floor, the conservative group Club for Growth pressured Republicans to vote against it, warning them that the final vote on the bill would be included in the Club's 2012 "congressional scorecard."
"When a natural disaster occurs, there is a textbook response by Congress - they cobble together an overpriced bill that isn't paid for, there's no accountability or oversight, and it's filled with pork. This proposal is no different," the Club for Growth's Andy Roth said in an email to lawmakers' offices today. "If lawmakers are interested in improving the bill, they should release the funds in installments to make sure the resources are spent wisely. They should also strip out all immaterial line items, and fully offset all expenditures with spending cuts elsewhere."
Leahy flatly rejected the idea offsetting the spending as "absurd."
Schumer argued against releasing the money in installments explaining that states need funding to work on ambitious projects like restoring the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the longest underwater vehicular tunnel in the country. "Most of these projects need to begin now but may take more than a year," he said.