A $60.4 billion spending bill for Superstorm Sandy relief washed up on Capitol Hill in the middle of the "fiscal cliff" negotiations, forcing Republicans to grapple with whether to demand spending cuts to offset the storm bill or approve the money and clear the decks for bigger fights.
The scenario puts Republicans in a corner: They can insist on offsets and preserve their political base, or pass the bill as-is, getting relief out quickly but adding to the nation's staggering debt. So far, the latter course appears to be winning out.
"We'd be wise to do offsets but this is truly an emergency," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. "I'd like to try to find offsets but at the end of the day this is a catastrophic event in a ... huge population center."
Even House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, who last year pressed that relief money to aid victims of natural disasters in several parts of the country be offset, has taken a softer approach this time.
"The House Appropriations Committee is reviewing it to ensure that the request is truly focused on the urgent needs of those impacted," said Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper. "We will ensure that the necessary assistance is provided as expeditiously as possible."
If more money is needed for truly emergency relief efforts, under a reformed disaster funding process established in last year's Budget Control Act, the money wouldn't need to be offset, Mr. Cantor's office says.
Democrats say emergency spending is a one-time expense and so it makes sense to add it to the government's tab. President Obama made that point in his letter to Congress requesting the money.
But conservative orthodoxy generally holds that new spending should be paid for with spending cuts or tax increases elsewhere in the budget.
Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, said he wants more details on President Obama's Sandy relief aid request before signing off on it, saying the president's $60.4 billion request "seems absurdly high."
"Let's determine what truly is the emergency portion of that," he said. "We're a compassionate Congress here, we want to help people that can't help themselves that aren't insured. But let's actually get the information before we rush through a vote on $60 billion worth of spending when we're not quite sure where it's going to go."
Despite its $60.4 billion price tag, the president's package would only spend $9.1 billion during the 2013 fiscal year, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. That could bolster GOP arguments that the "emergency" needs are much smaller than what the White House is pushing.
"I think it is legitimate to pass a supplemental soon, but it takes years to spend all that money," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican. "If it's going to be $60 billion, or an $80 billion legitimate claim, it all doesn't have to be passed at once."
Mr. Sessions said Congress should get a cost estimate from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) instead of taking its cue from the White House.
"Of course, we have money. We set aside money, but it is dwindling rapidly and it will soon be gone," he said.
But Mr. Sessions added that while he favors offsets, "this one is going to be awfully large and I doubt that is going to be practical."
Other Republicans, though, said their leaders should push for offsets. Rep. Virginia Foxx, North Carolina Republican, said she pressed for Hurricane Katrina disaster relief aid to be offset and she'll do the same for Sandy.
"We keep saying we have a spending problem, remember?" Mrs. Foxx said. Republicans "are very consistent about that."
Staff writers David Sherfinski and Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.
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