Heavy NY lobbying got Sandy aid bill passed

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks about federal aid Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks about federal aid to help New York recover from superstorm Sandy. (Dec. 3, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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WASHINGTON -- New York had to flex its political muscle to win $60 billion for superstorm Sandy relief, deploying two dozen of its top business leaders to lobby Republicans and pushing the White House to go big in its initial request for federal aid.

The campaign for Sandy aid, quarterbacked by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and led in the House by Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), employed public officials from New York and New Jersey to work the levers of politics and procedure to breach the partisan gulf in Congress.

It also included lobbying of key Republicans by New York chief executives who are major Republican funders. Among them were billionaire Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone, financier Henry Kravis, Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein and Macy's chief executive Terry Lundgren.

Their clout was such that Langone, of Sands Point, said he talked to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on New Year's Eve to urge him to allow an aid vote the next day.

"I reached him about 11 at night," Langone said. "I said: 'John, we're in desperate need. This is not an if. . . . This has to be.' "

The Sandy relief act, with its $60 billion price tag, faced a hard road, said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based conservative think tank.

It came amid tense negotiations over the fiscal cliff, with the GOP arguing for austerity and deficit reduction, and fiscal conservatives putting up unprecedented opposition to disaster aid, he said.

The conservative Heritage Foundation, Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Rep. Scott Mulvaney (R-S.C.) called the aid bill a wasteful, pork-filled overreach. The House GOP tried to eliminate two-thirds of the amount.

Yet from Oct. 29, when Sandy hit, to Jan. 29, when the relief act was signed into law, the campaign persisted -- with entreaties, warnings and finally threats to cut off donations to Republicans standing in the way.

And it worked.

 

New York and New Jersey estimated a need for $80 billion in aid, but some in the White House were looking for a smaller amount that Congress could pass quickly, congressional sources said.

"Working closely with our state and local partners, the administration developed a request, and when that request was finalized, we proposed it," an administration official said.

Over dinner in a Brooklyn restaurant, Schumer told Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan that New York needed a big portion of aid upfront and needed to include funds to prepare for future storms.

New York and New Jersey senators met first with Donovan, whom Obama would later name as his point man on Sandy recovery, and then with White House budget director Jeffrey Zeints in Schumer's office.

On Dec. 5, the White House floated the idea of $50 billion in aid. That led to another meeting between the senators and Zeints at 9:30 the next evening.

Senate appropriations aide Charles Kieffer, speaking at a conference of federal contractors, later said the senators worked "very aggressively" with the White House "and convinced the administration to come forward with a $60 billion proposal."

On Dec. 7, the White House sent a $60.4 billion aid package to Congress.

 

The next step was finding Republican votes for the aid: eight in the Senate, 30 in the House.

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Amid appeals to unity and compassion for those who were suffering, and reminders that the Northeast had been there for other states' disasters, Schumer and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), an appropriations panel member and Hurricane Katrina veteran, went to work on the legislation.

To lure GOP votes, they included what they called "sweeteners" -- "pork" to critics -- such as fishery disaster funds for Alaska and Maine, and money for disaster-hit North Dakota and Gulf Coast states. The House later would remove many of these items.

Schumer, in an effort to avoid gridlock, won agreement to allow Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to offer nearly a dozen amendments. All but one lost.

The New Yorkers also recruited a Republican heavy hitter, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and influential New York executives who fund Republicans, to reach out to the GOP.

"All of Congress comes to New York for money. This time it came in handy," said Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a major business group.

In mid-December, her group kicked off a lobbying blitz with a letter to congressional leaders signed by 125 chief executives.

Some members didn't sign the letter because they also belong to fiscally conservative Fix the Debt, but they lobbied quietly.

"They were concerned about an appearance of conflict between the fiscal cliff and the request for money," Wylde said.

Chief executives at Macy's, JetBlue and Viacom also instructed their staff across the country to reach out to their local federal lawmakers in support of Sandy aid, Wylde said.

At Schumer's direction, Langone, Lundgren, Kravis and Stephen Schwartzman of the Blackstone Group and others called key Republicans, including House leaders and senators whose votes were needed. Among them were Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Both declined to comment on what they called "private calls."

"From the third week of December until it finally passed, it was six to eight calls a day," Langone said.

 

The Senate passed the aid bill 62-36 on Dec. 28, with 12 Republicans voting for it.

The bill then moved to the House, where opposition was more intense, the politics trickier and the end of the session just days away.

King early on had reached out to Boehner, a friend and ally, and said the speaker promised a vote on the aid without requiring a way to pay for it. But Boehner left it to Cantor to schedule the vote.

Cantor, with many friends and much money raised in New York financial circles, became a lobbying target.

He promised a New Year's Day vote. But when Langone called Boehner on New Year's Eve to urge him to allow the vote, he got a mixed response.

"He said, 'We're going to figure out how to get you the money, but we got a lot of things to do here at one time,' " Langone said.

At the last minute on Jan. 1, Boehner canceled the aid vote, following a hard vote to raise taxes to avert the fiscal cliff.

King and Christie, stunned and outraged, attacked, making explicit the implicit threats in the campaign donor calls.

"I'm saying right now, anyone from New York or New Jersey who contributes one penny to congressional Republicans is out of their minds," King said.

"King and Christie were great. It created a tsunami of pressure," said Wylde. "Then the lobbying effort started all over again."

In a meeting the next day, Boehner greeted King with a smile and an unprintable name before he and Cantor announced two quick votes for a total of $60.2 billion in aid.

Approval in the House and Senate became inevitable, but Langone kept calling Boehner.

"I called him right up until it was done," Langone said. "We couldn't leave anything to chance. We just couldn't."

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