Northeastern lawmakers scrambled Thursday to address Republican concerns that could stall swift passage of a massive emergency spending bill to aid the victims of Superstorm Sandy.
"We members of the New York, New Jersey delegation - Democrats and Republicans alike - have always been there when other parts of the nation were struck by disaster," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York. "New York tax dollars went to the Gulf and went to fight forest fires out West and flooding in the Missouri and Mississippi valleys. And now, unfortunately, we've been struck, and we hope and really expect our colleagues to show the same courtesy to us."
At issue is $60.4 billion in emergency aid the White House wants to rebuild houses, schools, bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that were devastated by the October storm. The governors of the affected states had asked the administration for more than $80 billion.
Republicans have three main concerns. First, they argue that the administration's request is too large and not detailed enough. Second, they argue that much of the money won't be spent for several years, and therefore, all of it should not be approved right away. Third, some Republicans want the costs offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget.
Republicans don't want "to deny people who have been victimized by the storm what they need," said Sen. John Cornyn, a top GOP Senate leader. "I just think we need to do more due diligence."
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, a fiscal hawk, heard from Schumer Wednesday but still isn't convinced that the large price tag is justified.
Coburn told CNN that 64% of the money would not be spent before 2015. "This is a stimulus bill, not an emergency bill," he said.
Coburn said $20 billion to $22 billion probably is enough money to meet the immediate needs of Sandy victims, and more money could be approved later. On the question of offsets, Coburn said that despite the fiscal crisis facing the country right now, he doubted Republicans would succeed in getting cuts elsewhere.
In the House, Republican staffers on the Appropriations Committee are combing through the request. Several GOP aides complained that the administration sent Congress a request for a lot of money without details on how the various federal agencies involved in the response would spend it. Now these aides are asking these agencies directly for details.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, spoke with Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo by phone on Wednesday and pledged to work to get emergency funding through as soon as possible.
But it's unclear whether the House will approve the full amount or decide to pass a portion of it first as they look at the longer-term needs.
Several House GOP aides warned there could be backlash to adding money for items they consider unrelated to the storm cleanup.
"If the president is trying to load this bill up with stimulus not related to getting help to people facing an emergency, he's going to have a problem getting this through fast," one of these aides told CNN.
While lawmakers from the affected states say that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has enough resources to fund relief and recovery efforts through February, they are still pushing for Congress to pass the entire request without delay.
GOP Rep. Michael Grimm, R-New York, who represents Staten Island, which was devastated by the storm, said he and others are pushing for the Senate to vote on the total package first and the send it to the House.
The Senate will begin debating the measure on Monday. A Democratic leadership aide said Democrats are hopeful but uncertain about whether enough Republicans will vote to clear the bill, which could happen by the end of next week.
"We're working on Republicans, and we're not there yet," said Schumer. "Every senator, no matter their party, ought to think what happens when a disaster strikes their area. Do they want to go through the same rigmarole? Do they want to say there should be offsets? Do they want to say do it, you know, just do a little bit now even though the needs are so much greater? I don't think so. So I am hopeful they will rise to the occasion."
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, is considering fashioning a smaller package directed at the most immediate needs that the House could vote on before the end of the year, but no decisions have been made yet. Action in the House will depend on what happens with the Senate.