(MCT) — WASHINGTON — Some U.S. House conservatives who unsuccessfully fought last year to require budget cuts to pay for the disaster aid needed after Hurricane Irene now say they are open to helping the Northeast rebuild from superstorm Sandy.
One difference between now and then is the reputation built by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie among Republicans — including those he campaigned for this year.
Damage estimates are still being compiled, but as Congress returned for its first full session after Election Day, members from both parties were talking to colleagues about the need for additional money to rebuild what Sandy destroyed.
But the push for what is likely to be tens of billions of extra federal dollars comes as Congress is grappling with larger questions tied to the fiscal cliff about how to cut long-term deficits by trillions. And some Democrats and Republicans — even some from New Jersey — remain far apart about whether rebuilding could be accommodated through the normal federal budget, or if a major public-works effort needs to be approved on an emergency basis.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, has railed against past disaster bills, arguing that millions was wasted after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 on flawed housing trailers and even divorce lawyers’ fees. He repeated those complaints at a “conversations with conservatives” news conference Wednesday, saying there should be detailed budgets provided to Congress and the House should seek to offset added spending with cuts elsewhere.
But King also had Christie come to Iowa to campaign for him this year. And King said it would not be a “deal breaker” if the Democratically controlled Senate refused to offset spending.
“I have great compassion for the people in the Northeast and I’m very confident that Governor Christie is going to come up with a very responsible plan,” King said. “You look around the country at who would be among the most responsible governors in utilizing what might come from the federal government for Sandy, he’s first on my list. So I have great confidence in his sense of fiscal responsibility.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said he learned Wednesday that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan would play a major role in the recovery that extends beyond his department’s normal boundaries. Details are expected to be announced in coming days, he said.
The federal government has spent $1.5 billion responding to Sandy already, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said after a briefing with Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA has enough money to meet current needs for food and temporary shelter, Lautenberg said, but there is only about $6 billion in reserve and that’s not nearly enough to rebuild.
Lautenberg compared the scope of the damage to Katrina, which he said cost the federal government more than $100 billion. And he urged his Democratic colleagues at a closed luncheon to be ready to help the region.
“One of the pleas that I made in our lunch just now is to remember our hurricane is not different than another state’s volcano, drought, (or) flooding, and it is likely every state that’s here is going to at some point or another feel the violence of nature as we continue to abuse it and ignore the fact that global warming is here, is real and we have to get on with preparing for it,” Lautenberg said.
He said “the stage is set” after voters rejected a government-is-bad message to upgrade Eisenhower-era infrastructure to face the more frequent severe storms predicted from climate change.
“You have to be prepared for these things,” he said. “We’ve ignored the ravages of environmental abuse.”
But Rep. Scott Garrett, R-Wantage, came away from the same briefing with a different impression. He said the Office of Management and Budget was still determining what kind of reconstruction needs there would be, and projects could take years to complete and therefore would not need funding all at once.
Some projects could have been scheduled for repairs or replacement already since they were older and worn out, so they might be able to access regular federal or state funding for those types of projects, Garrett said.
“Once we know what we need, the answer may not be what everybody’s already been sort of chiming about, more money to FEMA, more money to FEMA. The answer may be if you need a long-term project for ‘X’ building or something like that, the money should come from (Housing and Urban Development Department) housing program.
“And so just throwing the money as some people have been calling for into FEMA is inappropriate. You should be looking to see is there enough money in ‘X’ and do you need to up that,” Garrett said.
Garrett was the only member of the House delegation from New Jersey to decline to sign a letter Nov. 5 to House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi calling for swift and bipartisan action if additional funding for recovery is needed. He said he would wait to see what the administration proposed before deciding whether to support additional spending.
Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-Ventnor, N.J., circulated that Nov. 5 letter among Republicans. Since then, the need for additional funding has become clearer because of the scope of Sandy’s damage, spokesman Jason Galanes said.
“Exact final numbers are not known at this point, but . . . we envision a need for additional federal support from Congress,” he said. “Congress has worked together in a bipartisan manner to respond to earthquakes in California, tornadoes in the Midwest. New Jersey should not be treated any differently.”
Menendez, who was also at the FEMA briefing, said it was important to make clear from the start what Washington would be willing to fund or rebuild, even if projects may take years to complete. That’s because businesses and residents need to know as they make their own decisions about rebuilding.
“There will clearly not be enough money for recovery,” he said. “And the suggestion that we should wait to exhaust all the response money until you start to talk about recovery is really not acceptable, because if you’re trying to reconstruct your life and business, you can’t wait to understand what the federal government’s role is going to be.”
He said questions that still need to be answered are how much local governments or residents will have to contribute toward rebuilding, and whether other types of grants such as Community Development Block Grants, will be made flexible enough to meet local needs.
Like his colleagues, Menendez said he pressed the issue on the Senate floor during votes Tuesday night when other senators, including Republicans, came up to congratulate him on his re-election.
“I made it clear that when there was (a devastating tornado in) Joplin (Mo.), I was there. When there was flooding on the Mississippi, I was there. When there was crop destruction, I was there. It’s one country, and we’re going to need you now.
“A lot of them expressed positive sentiments. We’ll see what happens when they get behind closed doors in their caucus, but I’m expecting we’ll react as a country,” he said.