Post-Sandy aid won't come without debate

Nick Moligano helps a cleanup crew remove debris

Nick Moligano helps a cleanup crew remove debris from a neighbor's house on East Shore Road in Lindenhurst. (Nov. 14, 2012) (Credit: David Pokress)

Observing the universal but unwritten "might-as-well-ask" rule of government, New York officials are requesting $42 billion or so in post-Sandy federal aid.

Of that total, $9.1 billion would go to projects aimed at preventing similar damage from future calamities. New Jersey, meanwhile, is officially seeking about $37 billion.

Now, say this $79 billion bi-state appeal should by all rights be $72 billion, or $81 billion, or a lot less, or a lot more. Would even the experts who track this stuff be able to tell just yet?

The full picture has yet to be filled in on private insurance payouts. And, anyone who's followed a government budget process knows how squishy the starting assumptions can be -- and how complex and subject to manipulation revenue streams can be.

But the roughness of even the most scrupulous damage estimates may be the least of challenges for senators and House members from both states, as they set out in tandem to scare up fiscal relief from Washington, D.C.

By a twist of fate, Sandy's aftermath coincides with the latest Capitol fiscal scream-fest -- widely identified by the hyperbolic term "fiscal cliff" -- which has lawmakers' attention fastened on where and how much to cancel big swaths of spending.

The other day, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was asked at a news conference if he thought the requested funds would come through. "I'm always optimistic," he said. "I always believe that we're going to win. I still think we're going to get that stadium on the West Side. I still think we're going to get the 2012 Olympics."

This was a light quip with a downbeat message. Although Bloomberg modified it after meetings in Washington, D.C., to cite "an optimistic buzz" among lawmakers, he knows better than anyone that buzzes aren't bucks.

A request of this scope, at least for the moment, may add up to the political version of a hail-Mary pass.

If anyone emerges as the leading point person for either state in Washington, it would probably be New York's senior Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer. Perhaps blending realism and expectation management, Schumer told reporters Wednesday: "There is no doubt this is going to be a hard sell . . . There's a long way to go and there are going to be many pitfalls in the way, particularly given the climate in Washington and the shortage in money."

He also has indicated that drawing down aid will require several emergency-spending bills. One question is whether the House GOP majority will require offsetting cuts for any Sandy allotments that help those in two states that went heavily for President Barack Obama earlier this month. And there will be plenty of legitimate grounds for those from other regions to debate how much and what type of aid is appropriate.

For New Yorkers, the massive allotments that followed the World Trade Center attack 11 years ago may leap to mind -- even if securing key properties and policing against terrorism have a different political dynamic than helping storm and flooding victims.

Remember the $4.2 billion law named after the late NYPD officer James Zadroga, providing free medical treatment and compensation to 9/11 first responders? Its enactment followed a long battle -- even as leaders of both major parties had motive to avoid brushing off the bill's supporters.