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Sandy aid bill clears hurdle in Senate

Homes in Westhampton have flooded lawns from the

Homes in Westhampton have flooded lawns from the high tide in Shinnecock Bay caused by superstorm Sandy. (Oct 30, 2012) Credit: Doug Kuntz

WASHINGTON -- The $60.4 billion disaster aid bill for superstorm Sandy recovery won a key procedural vote in the Senate Friday, setting it up for Senate passage next week, its Democratic backers said.

Republicans gave the Sandy aid bill a pass in a 91-1 vote to allow it to move forward for debate on amendments and a final majority vote when the Senate returns on Dec. 27.

But yesterday's Senate action represented just another step along what Democrats acknowledge is a tough and uncertain path that still must go through a fiscally conservative Republican-controlled House with little time left before year's end.

The House could force further cuts, or even submit a package similar to a proposed Senate amendment by Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) that shrinks the aid to $24 billion by stripping out money for construction and fortification for future storms.

Still, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other senators from New York and New Jersey called yesterday's vote to overcome a filibuster a "victory" and an important sign of progress for the aid package.

"This is a large first step for New York," Schumer said after the vote. "To our communities that have lost so much, this aid will be a real shot in the arm."

Democrats said the Republicans' agreement to allow the bill to move forward virtually assured its Senate passage next week.

Yet Democrats also suffered a setback in a second procedural vote that will require that Congress cut spending to pay for $3.4 billion in the aid bill for Army Corps of Engineers construction to fortify for future storms.

A move to waive that requirement failed 57-34 in a motion that needed 60 votes to pass.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) introduced the requirement in a procedure known as a budget point of order.

Toomey said the funding in the bill for longer-term mitigation projects should go through the regular budget process and "ought to be weighed in competition with other needs."

Schumer countered that the requirement defied 100 years of congressional tradition to not require spending cuts to pay for emergency aid.

"Disaster money will be much less available in the future," Schumer warned. "This is an awful precedent."

The fate of the Sandy aid bill appears to be tied up in negotiations over tax and spending legislation needed to address the "fiscal cliff" -- more than $500 billion in automatic tax increases and spending cuts that take effect at the end of the year.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), after failing to find votes for his plan to resolve the issue, on Thursday sent the House on recess until he calls it back.

If the House does not return this year, the Sandy aid bill cannot be passed no matter what the Senate does next week.

But Schumer said the House will have to return to deal with the fiscal cliff. "It seems to me they have no choice," he said.

Anticipating a tough House vote, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) made an appeal to Republican lawmakers. "I know that people of good will," she said,  "will come together."

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