* Conservative groups say storm aid bill loaded with "pork"
* Republicans eye amendments to restrict package
* Democrats: Money needed up front for large rebuilding
WASHINGTON, Dec 17 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Monday
began debating a $60.4 billion aid bill to rebuild communities
devastated by Superstorm Sandy amid criticism by conservative
groups who said the measure was loaded with wasteful,
The Democratic-controlled Senate is looking to pass the
disaster aid bill this week. But Republicans, wary of its huge
price tag in the midst of tense debt and deficit negotiations in
Washington, are likely to try to ratchet back some of its
provisions through amendments.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is taking a slower,
more painstaking approach to analyzing the Obama
administration's request for funding to rebuild coastal
communities largely in New York and New Jersey, repair
transportation infrastructure there and provide other aid.
The House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, a
Kentucky Republican, hopes to move an aid measure before
year-end but has been considering a smaller initial bill aimed
at meeting immediate disaster needs.
The conservative Club for Growth urged senators to vote
against the Sandy relief bill, saying that it contained a lot of
"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 group
said in an email to senators.
Among spending items in the Senate bill drawing the ire of
Washington conservatives is one seeking $150 million for fishery
disasters in Alaska and Mississippi - thousands of miles from
the Sandy damage. The bill also includes a request of $50
million for the National Park Service's historic preservation
fund and nearly $9 million to replace vehicles and other
equipment used by the Departments of Justice and Homeland
Even some local New Jersey politicians criticized the bill.
"A full 5 percent of the appropriation request is earmarked
for the replacement of federal assets, rather than rebuilding
and aid efforts in the tri-state area," New Jersey State Senator
Joe Pennacchio, a Republican, said in a statement, referring to
New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.
The three states had initially requested $82 billion in aid,
although damage estimates were expected to rise over time. Some
of the rebuilding costs were expected to be covered by private
Some lawmakers are also questioning the bill's inclusion of
infrastructure upgrades aimed at mitigating damage from future
storms. For example, $5.5 billion would be allocated to the
Federal Transit Administration to make transportation systems
more resilient in high winds and floods, including efforts to
keep tunnels from flooding.
Republicans also questioned the need to push through the
full $60.4 billion at once, given that the Congressional Budget
Office estimates that only about $9 billion in aid will be
disbursed in 2013.
"Let's do this in a real way. Look at how much we're going
to spend each year, and do it on an annual basis," Senator Bob
Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, told Reuters last week.
But Democrats, displaying large photographs of flooded
subway stops and houses turned into splinters, defended the bill
on Monday, saying that Congress has always provided disaster
recovery aid and the need after Sandy was massive.
Appropriating funds in small increments was unworkable, they
argued, because transit agencies, businesses and communities
needed certainty that reimbursement money will be available or
they cannot start reconstruction projects.
Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said this
was particularly important for large, multi-year transit
projects - such as those required in his state.
"If we don't put up the money, then some of the rebuilding
will wait. A piecemeal recovery is a stalled recovery,"
Senate Republican aides did not immediately have details on
their party's proposed amendments.
The Obama administration, which requested the $60.4 billion
aid packages just over a week ago, signaled that it is willing
to accept some changes, saying in a statement that it "looks
forward to working with the Congress to refine the legislation."