Sandy relief bill gets add-ons to lure GOP votes
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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate's $60.4 billion superstorm Sandy relief bill contains more than $20 million for Alaska's fisheries and $188 million for new Amtrak tunnels in New York before commercial development gets in the way, an analysis shows.
The Senate added those and possibly other projects when it turned the White House aid request into legislation last week.
"Certainly there are real needs, and there is emergency spending that needs to be done," said Erich Zimmermann of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense, which conducted the analysis. "But public cynicism about these kinds of bills grows with these other things that get tacked on," he said.
Those kinds of add-ons, and the billions of dollars sought for mitigation projects to fortify for future storms, are among issues some Republican lawmakers are expected to raise in the Senate debate on the Sandy aid bill that begins Monday.
At the same time, Senate Democrats appear to be following the time-honored strategy of adding money requested by Republicans, such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), in a bid to woo GOP lawmakers for the votes needed to pass the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he will open the bill to amendments this week, as lawmakers from New York, New Jersey and other states hit by the October storm push for passage in Congress before Christmas.
The Senate Appropriations Committee, which drafted the bill, defended the added money as filling unanticipated needs.
When the committee released the legislation Wednesday, Murkowski and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) issued news releases touting their success in securing money in the bill.
Murkowski said the bill would fund "Alaska-specific concerns stemming from this season's salmon shortfall and the rising threat of debris from last year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan." Murkowski, an Appropriations Committee member, said she asked for $20 million. The Senate bill, she said, includes "$150 million in fishery disaster relief, to be shared among multiple states, and $56 million for marine debris efforts in several states."
Murkowski said she'll make her case for money for Alaska with the commerce secretary, who decides where those fishery and debris funds go.
An Appropriations Committee aide said the bill provides money for unfunded fishery disasters declared in Alaska, Mississippi and New England and that the Alaskan debris cleanup from the 2011 tsunami is "another necessary, urgent and unanticipated need."
The Senate also accommodated Amtrak's president, John Boardman, who asked for $336 million, which includes $188 million for a down payment on building two new tunnels.
Sandy flooded the two existing East River tunnels, and the best fix for future storms is building two new tunnels, Boardman testified before the Senate Commerce Committee. The tunnels are used by the Long Island Rail Road.
His testimony showed "a compelling need to make that infrastructure more resilient, which includes adding prevention improvements and redundancy," the Appropriations Committee aide said.
The assessment is shared by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), his office said.
The urgency is driven by commercial development.
"We need now to make sure we guarantee access from New Jersey into New York with a new tunnel box under Hudson Yards, which is the West Side Yards, before real estate development overtakes us," his office said.
Amtrak spokesman Steve Culm said, "This is likely something we would have done when we do the appropriation request for next year, but it's presenting itself now."