Congressional fight begins over Sandy relief funds

Washington — Senate appropriators released a $60.4 billion bill to provide relief to Connecticut and other states hit by Superstorm Sandy, but the legislation’s path to final approval appears to be a rocky road.

The White House last week asked Congress for the same amount to respond to Superstorm Sandy, which was less than the total of $83 billion the governors of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey said they needed.

But Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., have threatened to block the bill, saying it costs too much money.

“That’s an awful big bite to swallow,” Kyl said.

The lion’s share of the money would go to New York and New Jersey, hardest hit by Sandy. But Connecticut  Gov.  Dannel Malloy has asked for $3.2 million to cover uninsured losses and protect the state from another storm by burying power lines and establishing electricity power grids in densely populated areas.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he was encouraged “by this first step.”

But he acknowledged it will be an uphill climb to win congressional approval of disaster aid in an atmosphere of austerity and budget cuts.

“There’s no question that there will be a lot of convincing and cajoling,” Blumenthal said. “It will be a long slog and a tough fight.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee made some changes to President Obama’s request.  It added $2 billion to the White House’s $15 billion request for Community Development Block Grants and directed the additional money be used for mitigation projects.  The Senate appropriators would allow the Department of Housing and Urban Development to distribute the money to affected states on the basis of need.

Other money would go to give the federal flood insurance program an additional $9.7 billion to respond to an anticipated torrent of claims.  About $5 billion would go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to make sure it could continue to help disaster victims, nearly $6 billion would go to Army Corps of Engineer flood control projects and nearly $11 billion to pay for the repair and restoration of public transit systems.

Hundreds of millions of dollars would be spent on the repair of public housing, national parks — including Ellis Island, the site of the Statue of Liberty — and the Coast Guard Academy in New London.

If the legislation wins approval of the Senate in the last few days of Congress’ lame duck session, its fate is unknown in the House.

Some House Republicans are calling for offsets to the money.  House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., says he’s open to approve money that would directly help storm victims, but the bulk of the appropriations request, for mediations efforts, can wait for consideration next year.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, the only Connecticut lawmaker to sit on an appropriations committee, said she would “fight for every dollar the state needs to rebuild and mitigate for future storms.”