Will Hurricane Sandy relief fall off the ‘fiscal cliff?’

December 3, 2012
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).  (Mike Groll – AP)

Among the many unanswered questions facing lawmakers in the coming weeks is how to assist several northeastern states still reeling from damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.

New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and other states are expected to request more than $80 billion to help rebuild roads, bridges, schools, seaports and subway stops — a hefty sum in any fiscal environment. But with President Obama and Congress seeking ways to cut trillions of dollars in federal spending, it might be a too-high price  for Washington.

The White House is expected to issue its supplemental spending request for Sandy-related aid early this week, according to congressional sources who anticipate the request will account for most, but not all of the requested funds.

The urgency of the matter facing affected states may be best reflected Monday when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) — a potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidate — makes his maiden voyage as governor to Washington. Cuomo spent several years in D.C. as Bill Clinton’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, but has avoided visiting town since taking office in 2011.

Cuomo is slated to meet with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate leaders Monday afternoon as he seeks roughly $42 billion in federal aid: $32 billion in reimbursement requests for storm damage and about $9 billion for mitigation work to rebuild and strengthen the state’s infrastructure. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) made a similar visit to Washington last week.

Despite the extra attention afforded to Cuomo’s first visit to Capitol Hill as a governor, “Andrew’s not one for ceremony, he’s all business,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.). The New York lawmaker is stepping down as head of the House Homeland Security Committee and in recent weeks has served as Cuomo’s liaison to Boehner and House Republicans.

In addition to New York’s request, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) wants $36.8 billion in federal aid while Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) is expected to ask for about $3.2 billion.

White House aides wouldn’t comment on the forthcoming supplemental request for storm aid, nor say when Obama might formally issue the request. But they note that the administration has already doled out about $1.9 billion to support ongoing response and recovery efforts, a sum that includes about $960 million in direct assistance payments to residents affected by the storm.

Much of the wheeling-and-dealing for storm money will occur as Obama and top lawmakers continue negotiating a way to avoid the “fiscal cliff” and some have suggested that a Sandy aid package might be passed as part of the final deal. The process will begin this week with the House and Senate appropriation committees, where the lack of northeast Republican lawmakers could be a factor. Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) is the only GOP lawmaker from the tri-state area with a seat on the powerful panel, but the committee includes Democratic appropriators from the region: Nita M. Lowey (N.Y.), José E. Serrano (N.Y.) and Rosa L. DeLauro (Conn.). Ditto in the Senate, where Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is the only resident of the greater New York region on the appropriations panel.

But Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) are close to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), which should help ensure fair consideration of the requests. For her part, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) delivered an emotional recounting of the storm damage last week during a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. She tearfully recalled the fates of Brandon and Connor Moore, the two young boys swept away from their mother, Glenda, as they all tried to escape floodwaters on Staten Island.

Much like most non-cliff related issues these days, states affected by Hurricane Sandy may need to wait a bit longer for assistance — and may not get everything they want.

Also worth watching this week in Congress:

  • The aforementioned “fiscal cliff” negotiations are scheduled to continue, but neither side seemed happy in discussing the matter Sunday. Boehner called the White House’s first proposal “non-serious” and said that Congress will “never give up the power” to prevent the president from unilaterally raising the debt ceiling. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said congressional Republicans are in a “difficult position” as they continue negotiating, but remained confident that a deal will be reached. But summing up the feelings of many Republicans, Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) told CBS, “I think we’re going over the cliff.”
  • The Senate and House intelligence committees have several more closed-door meetings this week as they continue investigating the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. There was little discussion of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice on the Sunday shows and she’s currently not scheduled to make anymore appearances on Capitol Hill.
  • Incoming House lawmakers start measuring the drapes this week in their new office suites after Friday’s office lottery. They’ll be taking up vacant space in the Longworth and Cannon buildings; more senior House lawmakers occupy the coveted Rayburn building.

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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Ed O'Keefe | November 30, 2012