* Republican plan would cover only immediate storm needs
* Requests for future damage prevention efforts chopped out
* Top Senate Democrat Reid vows to push full request by
WASHINGTON, Dec 19 (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Republicans
sought to slash a $60.4 billion aid bill to cover reconstruction
after Superstorm Sandy, proposing on Wednesday to fund only
$23.8 billion in immediate disaster relief while assessing
The far smaller initial amount is one of a number of
Republican amendments aimed at cutting projects from a bill that
they see as a "slush fund" loaded with questionable requests for
spending on unrelated programs and big infrastructure.
Senator Daniel Coats of Indiana said his plan for $23.8
billion in initial funding would provide sufficient money for
immediate needs through March 27, for work such as debris
cleanup, repairing damaged equipment, rebuilding destroyed homes
"It seems to me the most logical, responsible way to move
forward is to identify the immediate needs and provide the
immediate funding to meet those needs," said Coats, a member of
the Senate Appropriations Committee.
He said longer-term needs could be considered next year, as
Congress works on approving new money to keep government
agencies and programs funded after a stopgap measure runs out on
Senate Democrats are trying to push through President Barack
Obama's full $60.4 billion Sandy disaster aid request before the
end of the year.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief
fund had about $4.3 billion as of Tuesday, but the request for
new funding has become tangled up with Congress' tense talks
over the year-end "fiscal cliff" of automatic tax hikes and
"We don't have time right now to get all the way through and
analyze the actual losses that were attributable to Sandy," said
Republican senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, adding that the
full $60.4 billion looked like a "slush fund."
KATRINA FUNDS FLOWED SWIFTLY
Democrats argue that the full funding amount is needed to
ensure that local businesses, municipalities and transit
agencies in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut can launch
full-fledged reconstruction projects immediately with the
confidence that they will be fully reimbursed. Without the money
approved, there will be delays, they say.
"This amendment will unnecessarily prolong the suffering of
those affected by Superstorm Sandy, and needlessly leave entire
communities vulnerable to future severe weather incidents,"
Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said in a
statement. "The whole nation will feel the economic impact of a
northeast crippled by languishing transportation infrastructure,
forsaken small businesses, and families left without homes."
The move would mark a significant shift from Congress'
actions following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the last storm to
wreak destruction on a similar scale as Sandy. Within two weeks
after Katrina's storm surge flooded New Orleans and other Gulf
Coast communities, Congress had appropriated $62.3 billion, and
storm costs eventually topped $100 billion.
"When we had the devastation in New Orleans, we got the aid
to those states very quickly," Senate Democratic leader Harry
Reid said on the Senate floor, noting that far more people were
affected by Sandy's path of destruction in a heavily populated
"We have to make a decision on this very, very important
legislation before we leave here this week," Reid said. "I would
hope that everyone would cooperate, but we have to do this."
The $23.8 billion offered in the Republican plan would be
less than 30 percent of the initial $82 billion aid request made
by New York, New Jersey and Connecticut earlier this month,
based on early damage estimates from the Oct. 29 storm.
The Republican plan would eliminate some $13 billion in
infrastructure improvements aimed at helping to prevent damage
from future storms. Among these are projects to keep New York
City subway tunnels from flooding and to build sand barriers to
protect some shorelines from storm surges.
It labels $5.4 billion to make transportation systems more
resilient as "non-Sandy related." The Amtrak passenger rail
agency, a frequent target of Republican budget-cutting efforts
would get only $32 million under the bill, instead of $336
Coats said such mitigation efforts were "long-term projects"
that should not be immediately funded without further study.
The Republicans also aim to cut out $150 million for
rebuilding fisheries, including those damaged by disasters in
Alaska and the Gulf Coast. It would exclude a $58.9 million
Department of Agriculture request to replant trees on private
property due to "unsubstantiated" estimates for damage from
The plan and other amendments to the Sandy aid measure are
expected to be considered on Thursday and Friday.
Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House of
Representatives, which normally acts first on spending bills, is
hanging back to see whether Senate Republicans are successful in
cutting the request down to size.
Asked if he would also proceed with an amount below the
$60.4 billion sought by Obama, House Appropriations Committee
Chairman Hal Rogers, a Republican from Kentucky, said: "Let's
see what the Senate does first."