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Sandy-hit agencies get no free ride for new cars
Storm funds go to Alaska, Gulf
The Senate passed a massive Superstorm Sandy relief bill late last week but not before lawmakers took a stab at some accountability — including insisting that the FBI, Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies first try to replace flood-damaged vehicles from within their existing fleets.
Senators preserved some of the more controversial spending in the bill, including $150 million that could be spent on salmon fisheries in Alaska and the oyster industry in the Gulf of Mexico, which are both far away from the areas devastated by Sandy.
The $60 billion bill cleared the Senate by a 62-32 vote late Friday evening, with 12 Republicans joining Democrats to power it through.
Its fate is murky, though, because the House has shown no inclination to consider the bill before it adjourns and a new Congress is sworn in Thursday. In the new Congress, the House could take up a more streamlined bill focused on immediate needs, which would be a fraction of the Senate's bill.
One easy target for the Senate was the request by the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal law enforcement branches for money to replace cars and trucks that were smashed by trees or flooded out by high waters from Sandy.
The government has nearly 450,000 civilian cars and trucks, and nearly 100,000 of them are part of the Justice and Homeland Security departments, which oversee the law enforcement branches that requested dozens of new vehicles.
So the Senate asked those departments to try to find ways to transfer cars from headquarters in Washington to New York and New Jersey, rather than buy new ones, and the Senate demanded a full accounting of the decision-making.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who insisted on the amendment, said the agencies still may end up buying new cars, but at least he has put them on notice.
"Knowing the bureaucracy as I do, they could go through the motions, but at least they know that we know that they're not going to get the cars there as soon as they would have," he said. "It would also give us an inventory of how many cars are sitting around that are not being used that could be put to immediate use now and get them replenished faster than if you took the money that is being appropriated."
The Senate also approved amendments requiring all spending grants to be posted online and banning tax cheats from getting any of the money.
But overall, the delegations from New York and New Jersey were pleased with the way the bill emerged from the Senate.
"We beat back all of the crippling amendments," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.
He said the Senate was right to keep the tradition of adding the money to the deficit rather than raising taxes or finding spending cuts elsewhere to pay for emergency spending.
Only a small amount of the bill — $3.4 billion — will have to be offset by cuts elsewhere, and even that was a minority view that prevailed only because Democrats couldn't muster 60 votes to overcome a budget challenge.
A number of Republicans said they felt compelled to support the request because their states have been the beneficiaries of federal help after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf of Mexico's coast in 2005.
"My state has been subjected to a number of major natural disasters, and I can fully appreciate the advantage and necessity of having relief and recovery resources readily available after a major disaster," said Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee that wrote the bill. He voted for the bill, though he called it "far from perfect."
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who took over as chairwoman of that committee in the middle of the debate, said passing the bill "showed that in America, we truly believe we are all in this together — that when one community is hit by a disaster, all communities are hit."
Republicans did prevent Democrats from adding more than $600 million for fighting wildland fires. They argued that the money should go through the regular spending process and be stacked up against other needs, rather than catch a piggyback ride on the emergency spending.
But Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, lost his fight to strip from the bill $58 million to plant trees on private property.
"Why is it the role of the federal government to pay for trees to be planted on private property, much less funded in a bill to repair the damage done by a hurricane?" Mr. McCain asked.
Ms. Mikulski said the reforestation program matches one started after Hurricane Katrina and used after tornadoes struck in the Southeast, and pays for clearing timber. She said the new money is limited to areas affected by Sandy.
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