WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama asked Congress Friday for $60.4 billion in federal aid for New York, New Jersey and other states hit by Superstorm Sandy in late October. It’s a disaster whose cost is rivaled only by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2005 Hurricane that devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
Obama’s request adds a huge new to-do item to a congressional agenda already packed with controversy on how to resolve the nation’s budget woes and avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.
“Our Nation has an obligation to assist those who suffered losses and who lack adequate resources to rebuild their lives,” Jeffrey D. Zients, deputy director of the budget office, wrote congressional leaders in a letter accompanying the formal request. “At the same time, we are committed to ensuring Federal resources are used responsibly and that the recovery effort is a shared undertaking.”
The measure blends aid for homeowners, businesses, and state and local government walloped by Sandy and comes with just a few weeks to go before Congress adjourns. Whether it passes this month or gets delayed in whole or part until next year is unclear.
The massive request comes after protracted discussions with lawmakers and officials from impacted areas. Officials from the affected states had requested significantly more money, but they generally praised the request and urged Congress to enact it as quickly as possible.
“Today’s agreement on the administration’s request to Congress would authorize more than $60 billion in funding that will enable our states to recover, repair, and rebuild better and stronger than before,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said in a joint statement. “We thank President Obama for his steadfast commitment of support and look forward to continuing our partnership in the recovery effort.”
Cuomo, a Democrat, and Christie, a Republican, came to Washington on Thursday to press for as large a disaster aid package as possible. Friday’s request was at the top end of what had been expected.
The aid request could face a turbulent path on Capitol Hill, especially from tea party House Republicans who are likely to press for budget cuts elsewhere to offset whatever disaster aid is approved. The looming fiscal cliff of expiring Bush-era tax cuts and automatic spending cuts to the Pentagon and domestic programs complicates prospects for action in the next few weeks.
As is traditional in natural disasters, the request was not accompanied by offsetting spending cuts to defray its cost.
The aid will help states rebuild public infrastructure like roads and tunnels and help thousands of people displaced from their homes. Sandy was the most costly natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and one of the worst storms ever in the Northeast.
The request also comes with little time left in the final days of a congressional session dominated by an impasse in negotiations between the White House and Republican lawmakers over how to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, a combination of expiring tax cuts and automatic spending cuts that total $500 billion for the first nine month of next year alone.
The measure contains $11.5 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s chief disaster relief fund and $17 billion for community development block grants, much of which would help homeowners repair or replace their homes. Another $11.7 billion would help repair New York City’s subways and other mass transit damage, while $9.7 billion would go toward the government’s flood insurance program. Another $ 5.3 billion would go to the Army Corps of Engineers to mitigate flood future risks and rebuild damaged projects.
“While more may be needed in the long term, this robust package is a major first step that we will work to pass as quickly as possible in Congress to help devastated communities, families and businesses,” said Reps. Peter King, R-N.Y., and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., in a joint statement.
The praise was not universal, however.
“We should not shortchange nor add strings to the support residents, businesses and communities in my district and across the region desperately need,” said Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo, whose southern New Jersey district includes hard-hit Atlantic City. “I will continue to work with my colleagues to ensure the federal aid package passed by Congress realistically matches the needs identified by the states on the ground.”
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the speaker had received the request and would review it.
The late October storm flooded parts of the East Coast when it roared ashore, creating a storm surge that left parts of New York City underwater and millions of people in several states without heat or electricity for weeks.
Superstorm Sandy is blamed for at least 125 deaths, including 60 in New York, 34 in New Jersey and 16 in Pennsylvania. At least seven people died in West Virginia, where the storm dropped heavy snow.
Sandy damaged or destroyed more than 72,000 homes and businesses in New Jersey. In New York, 305,000 housing units were damaged or destroyed and more than 265,000 businesses affected.
While lawmakers say more money is needed — New York, New Jersey and Connecticut together are seeking about $83 billion in aid — lawmakers praised the administration for listening to suggestions on ways to make sure projects aren’t delayed by bureaucratic rules or a congressional ban on targeted spending.
“There is a great deal of flexibility that better allows us to help homeowners, small businesses, hospitals, beach communities, and localities rebuild, repair and protect themselves,” said a joint statement from New York and New Jersey’s senators — Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey.
On Tuesday, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Craig Fugate, said the government’s disaster relief fund still has $4.8 billion, enough to pay for recovery efforts into early spring. So far, the government has spent about $2 billion in the 11 states struck by the storm.