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Republicans seek to trim Sandy disaster aid in House vote

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The fight over federal aid to victims of Superstorm Sandy resumed on Tuesday with the House of Representatives set to vote on $50.7 billion in additional money that some Republicans want to reduce.

The aid package has been caught up for months in congressional brawling over deficit reduction, tax rates and the U.S. government debt limit.

House lawmakers will consider the aid in two parts - an initial $17 billion to cover immediate emergency funding needs for devastated East Coast communities and an amendment to add $33.7 billion in longer-term reconstruction funds.

The House defeated an amendment from Republican conservatives that would have required the $17 billion portion to be offset with an equal amount of across-the-board spending cuts for fiscal 2013 - an overall reduction of 1.63 percent.

Republican Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina said he proposed the offset amendment because the United States fund Sandy aid with money borrowed from foreign countries.

"It is important to me that this money goes to the folks that need it very badly. It's so important to me that we should pay for it," Mulvaney said in debate on the House floor.

The House also is considering other Republican amendments that aim to remove individual items from the legislation, including $150 million in funding for regional ocean partnership grants, $13 million for National Weather Service investments and $9.8 million for rebuilding sea walls on uninhabited islands in Connecticut.

Final House votes on the legislation were expected Tuesday. Congress on January 4 passed an initial $9.7 billion to keep the National Flood Insurance Program solvent and able to pay homeowners' flood claims from Sandy.

But the bulk of the federal aid for victims of the October 29 storm that devastated coastal areas from New Jersey to Connecticut and killed more than 130 people has been tied up in controversy.

CANCELED VOTE

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner infuriated New York and New Jersey politicians on January 1 when he canceled a vote for a previous, $60.4 billion version of the legislation amid Republican angst over accepting higher tax rates on the wealthy in a deal to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.

The move prompted howls of protest that the largely Democratic East Coast states were being treated much more harshly than the Gulf Coast states that suffered massively from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Just 10 days after that storm, Congress had approved $62 billion in federal disaster aid.

It was clear from House floor debate and public statements that these officials are still steamed about the wait, which they said has delayed reconstruction work.

"The families affected by Sandy are in their hour of need. They have waited far too long for this institution to act," said Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a star in the Republican Party who is often touted as a potential 2016 presidential contender, said on Monday that he has been phoning congressional leaders to demand equal treatment for victims of Sandy to victims of other disasters, including Katrina and a 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri.

"We don't expect anything more than that, but we will not accept anything less," Christie told a news conference. "If they want to make new rules about disasters, they picked the wrong state to make the new rules with. And we're going to continue to fight as hard as we need to."

But a number of House Republicans said lawmakers should take more time to eliminate what they viewed as unnecessary provisions from the bill, including money to rebuild fisheries as far away as Alaska which suffered from other disasters.

Noting the current "precarious fiscal times," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers said the panel has given the legislation "a good scrub and we have adjusted funding levels to make the best use of taxpayer dollars."

While the aid legislation is widely expected to pass, some Republicans also called for reforms to the way the United States has funded disaster relief in recent years.

Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, in an opinion piece in the Washington Times, asked whether the bar for disaster funding was continually being lowered.

"As we continue to borrow more than 30 cents on the dollar, much of it from the Chinese, can and should the federal government continue to fund the restoration of private homes, businesses and automobiles?" Hensarling wrote.

(Additional reporting Ian Simpson, Hilary Russ and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Jackie Frank)

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