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Senate passes $60.4B Sandy disaster aid bill

A view of Belle Harbor. (Nov. 9,2012)

A view of Belle Harbor. (Nov. 9,2012) Credit: Doug Kuntz

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate on Friday approved the $60.4 billion superstorm Sandy disaster relief bill after a day of debate and votes on amendments, sending the legislation to the U.S. House for its final but uncertain step in Congress.

The Sandy aid package, proposed by the White House, passed 62-32 in a bipartisan vote that included 12 Republicans, though the bill needed only a simply majority.

The aid bill now goes to the GOP-controlled House, where it faces objections by Republicans who oppose disaster aid on principle, want to see amount of funding reduced, or demand cuts to other federal spending to pay for the bill.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a key strategist for the bill, highlighted the bipartisan vote, saying it should send a message to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has not said how he will handle the aid bill.

"We are urging the House to put this bill on the floor quickly and allow a vote," he said.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said, "I beseech the House of Representatives to come back in session on Sunday and vote on this bill."

The Sandy aid bill is expected to take a backseat to the last-minute deal on the "fiscal cliff" being negotiated between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) by Sunday, when the Senate and House reconvenes.

"Right now, the leaders in both houses and both parties are focusing on the fiscal cliff, but the reality is that we have to get the hurricane supplemental done," said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford).

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie issued a joint statement last night also urging the House to approve the funding.

"The Senate has passed this aid package in a bipartisan manner and there is no reason the House shouldn't do the same," they wrote. "With the House reconvening this weekend to help the nation avoid the 'fiscal cliff,' remember that disasters affect every region of this nation and that we as a nation stand together in times of crisis."

New York and New Jersey estimates of recovery costs for the late October storm topped $80 billion.

The House might not take up the bill, aides said.

"If the House doesn't vote, we think the work we have done lays down the groundwork for next year," Schumer said.

The bill being sent to the House changed little after the Democrat-led Senate rejected more than half of the 20 proposed amendments, including the Republican alternative bill that would strip the aid amount to $23.8 billion.

The Senate also rejected Republican amendments aimed at limiting the cost of the aid bill by increasing local contributions to construction projects, requiring competitive bidding and removing union-wage requirements for work done.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) withdrew his amendment to strip from the aid bill $336 million for Amtrak to prepare to build two new train tunnels. The item was added to the president's request by New York and New Jersey lawmakers.

Conservative groups criticized the added Amtrak funding as nonemergency "pork."

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