Christie vows to hound Congress for full $60.4B in Sandy relief
Thursday, December 20, 2012 Last updated: Friday December 21, 2012, 8:59 AM
BY ANTHONY CAMPISI, HERB JACKSON AND MELISSA HAYES
STATE HOUSE BUREAU
Governor Christie said he would personally call members of Congress and stress the need for full funding of a $60.4 billion aid package as the Senate nears a vote and his fellow Republicans call for cuts.
Christie has already visited with congressional leaders and President Obama. But that was before the president outlined his massive request to aid the rebuilding from superstorm Sandy’s historic damage. And it was before Republicans started to speak publicly about slashing that request, saying Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not give them enough details.
“I’m going to spend more time on the phone with senators and congressmen in Washington, D.C., than I have in a long time,” Christie said Thursday during an appearance in Belmar, a hard-hit shore community. “I want to make sure they hear directly from me how happy I’ll be if they do the right thing.”
But some members of Congress say they haven’t heard from the governor or were too busy to take his calls. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., the top Republican on the appropriations subcommittee that wrote the Republicans’ much smaller spending bill, said Christie called him Wednesday as Coats was heading to the floor to introduce amendments and he hadn’t had a chance to call him back.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who defended Republicans’ attempts to make changes to Obama’s proposal, said he had yet to speak with Christie.
“That’s all we’re asking for,” he said. “We’re not asking for, we’re not trying to block anything, we just want the opportunity to offer amendments.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he has received a lot of information from affected states.
“I’m just not sure what we’ve got from New Jersey,” he said. “I know we’ve had quite a bit of contact from the area that’s been affected by Sandy. I haven’t talked to the governor about it myself. But that doesn’t mean his office hasn’t been giving us the background that we need to give them what they’re asking for.”
Last month, Christie released an estimate of $36.9 billion in storm damages — a figure that includes $7 billion for projects to prevent future damage and for property covered by private insurance. At the time, Christie said he called members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation to outline the costs. The governor has sent detailed information to members of Congress outlining the damage and recovery costs, numbers he says were carefully crafted.
The governor’s office, however, has declined to make that detailed information public, offering only a broad breakdown of the damage estimates. At the top of the list is $8.3 billion for damage to businesses, followed by $5.5 billion to parks and the environment, including beaches.
Democratic and Republican Senate leaders worked Thursday to reach an agreement on the aid bill, while also trying to finish work on a major defense funding bill and one dealing with the government’s surveillance authority, before Christmas.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., scheduled a vote for 2 p.m. today on the defense bill, and said if there were no agreement this afternoon he would also hold a vote on a motion he filed Wednesday night to end debate on the disaster aid bill without considering any amendments. That would require 60 votes, including at least eight from Republicans. Some Democrats worried that using the tactic that barred amendments, known as cloture, could lead to “no” votes from Republicans who are otherwise inclined to support the bill if there’s opportunity for amendments.
Also filling the Senate’s time are speeches paying tribute to members who are retiring and eulogies for the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, who died Monday and was lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda on Thursday. The Senate is not expected to be in session this morning so members can attend a service for Inouye in the National Cathedral.
Any bill that passed the Senate would also have to clear the House, which adjourned Thursday night after Speaker John Boehner was unable to get enough votes in his caucus for his "Plan B" alternative to the looming fiscal cliff of $500 billion in scheduled tax increases and spending cuts next year. Members are expecting to return after Christmas, but Boehner's office has not said what day.
Christie has made common cause with President Obama in Sandy’s wake and has praised him for his help in the weeks and months following the storm.
Now, as members of his own party criticize Obama’s aid request, Christie called on congressional leaders to “stop bickering” and pass the legislation, which he says will give the state the resources it needs to rebuild.
“We need the Congress to pass that bill and we need them to pass it by New Year’s,” he said.
New Jersey lawmakers say they are doing their part to build support for the spending bill. Sen. Bob Menendez said fellow Democrats are on board and are working to gain Republican support.
“Some of them [Republicans] have expressed a willingness to be helpful,” he said. “But I know the difference between an expression of generalized support and a firm commitment, and I’ve asked for firm commitments and haven’t been able to get too many of those so far.”
Obama’s storm funding request, which was sent to Congress this month, contains key initiatives that the governor has sought since the storm hit in Oct. 29, including money for beach engineering, grants to help small businesses recover and funds to engineer beaches to reduce damage from future disasters.
At the time the request was sent, Christie said he had received assurances from House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that congressional Republicans wouldn’t seek to offset Sandy aid with cuts in other parts of the federal budget.
But Republicans in the Senate have criticized legislation drawn up to put Obama’s funding request into action, saying that damage estimates from New Jersey and New York lacked documentation and that the federal government shouldn’t be paying for things like beach replenishment.
Christie fought back at his first town hall-style event since Sandy, which he held in Belmar on Thursday, saying his administration had carefully scrutinized the state’s aid request.
“It’s a lot of money, and I understand that they have to review it and discuss it and debate it,” he said. “We were very careful about the request we made. We didn’t just throw a number against the wall.”
Christie added that much of the cost of rebuilding the shore and hardening it against future storms would be paid for by the federal appropriation.
“The goal is to get as much as we can functional and attractive for Memorial Day,” he said.
Cutting the president’s funding request to $24 billion, as Republicans have proposed, would make that much more difficult, Christie said.
Leaders of the region’s mass transit systems appeared Thursday at a hearing called by Menendez to defend their disaster requests, which would be slashed by a Republican alternative to the disaster aid plan.
The alternative offered by Coats would cut $2.8 billion from a $6.2 billion request for transportation repairs and eliminate the entire $5.4 billion requested to make transportation better able to withstand future storms.
Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff said the GOP plan would not include enough money for the region to actually recover, much less rebuild in a way that’s able to withstand future storms.
Repairs to the PATH system, which |still is not fully back online, are estimated to cost $700 million instead of the original estimate of $300 million, said Patrick Foye, the Port Authority executive director.
NJ Transit, which saw one-third of its railcars and locomotives damaged when Sandy’s storm surge flooded tracks in Hoboken and Kearny – is seeking $1.2 billion for mitigation.
That includes $500 million to build “storm-proof” rail yards, including a new one on Amtrak property in New Brunswick; $275 million to elevate elec*trical substations and protect bridges with seawalls along the North Jersey Coast Line; and $200 million to elevate power and other systems at maintenance and control centers in the Meadowlands.