McKinney wildlife refuge money only casualty in Sandy aid bill

Washington – The House on Tuesday stripped $9.8 million for repairs to Connecticut’s Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, but approved most of the rest of a $50.7 billion package to help states recover from Super Storm Sandy.

To placate GOP conservatives, money to replenish the federal flood insurance program was considered  earlier this month and the rest of a $60 billion disaster relief bill sought by President Obama was split into two.

One part was a bill for $17 billion aimed at immediate Sandy recovery needs, including $5.4 billion for mass transit systems and $5.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief aid fund. That won easy approval.

Then the House considered an amendment by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., for an additional $33.7 billion, including $10.9 billion for public transportation projects and nearly $17 billion for Community Development Block Grants that could be used by the governors of the storm-affected states for a wide variety of projects.

Conservatives argued the Frelinghuysen amendment was loaded with money that was not Sandy-related or for non-emergency purposes. But it was approved on a vote of 228-192, mostly with Democratic votes.

“It’s all good,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., after the vote on the final bill.

But while most efforts to strip down the bill failed, Rep. John Fleming, R-La., was successful in winning support for an amendment, 216-205, to eliminate  $9.8 million slated to help repair damage to the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge.

Damage at Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge (CT)

Fleming argued that most of the refuge is off limits to the public.

“We should not be spending money on coastlines that nobody ever goes to,” Fleming said.

Students from Southern Connecticut State University conduct research at the Outer Island research station, which suffered a damaged dock, seawall, and education building.

The other seven islands in Long Island Sound and three onshore sites that compose the refuge, named after a former Republican congressman from Connecticut, suffered from coastal erosion and other damage.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, took to the floor in the refuge’s defense, saying it provides critical habitat for threatened species.

She called Fleming’s measure a “pernicious amendment.”

“Is a state and a refuge somehow undeserving of disaster aid?” DeLauro asked. “It is amazing to me that we in the Northeast are being held hostage while the rest of the nation gets what it wants.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said he was glad the House finally approved Sandy aid, but troubled by the loss of money for the refuge.

“That’s an issue that will have to get revisited,” Courtney said.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, said he was disappointed the House took this long to approve the package, whose consideration was delayed by which was delayed by House Speaker John Boehner earlier this month.

“This is not the moment to be stingy with the American people,” he said.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah tried, and failed,  to strip out money for the federal government to buy coastal wetlands owned by private individuals who could not afford to restore them.

“You are not going to buy extra land with the money to repair what the United States already owns,” Bishop said.

But lawmakers from Sandy-hit states  pushed back at efforts to cut down the bill.

“What does the misery index have to get to for our constituents?” asked Rep. Frank LoBiondo, D-N.J.

“We need this and we need it now.”

The Senate, which approved a similar package in December, must act again on Sandy aid because the House was unable to act before the new Congress was gaveled in earlier this month.