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Senate-passed $60.4 billion Sandy aid package heads to tight-fisted House

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FILE: Oct. 30, 2012: Debris is scattered amidst storm damage from Sandy in Fairfield, Conn.AP

The $60.4 billion emergency-aid package for Hurricane Sandy victims that the Senate has passed now faces an uncertain, final vote in the Republican-controlled House, which has expressed a desire to pass  a less-expensive bill in the final days of the lame duck session.

The measure passed the Democrat-controlled Senate on Friday by a 62-32 vote, after Republicans failed to pass amendments that would have cut the package to $24 billion.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that only about $9 billion of the $60.4 billion would be spent over the next nine months.

The House is scheduled to return at 2 p.m. Sunday and was expected to vote on the bill. However, a vote Sunday on the bill was not listed on the chamber's legislative agenda that was post Saturday afternoon.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., has said Congress should probably begin with a smaller aid package for immediate recovery needs and wait until more information can be collected about storm damage before approving additional money next year.

The late-October storm hammed the East Coast for several days, killing at 120 people. The flooding, high winds and pounding surf stretched from North Carolina to Maine -- with New York, New Jersey and Connecticut hit hardest.

Rep. Paul Ryan, the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee and a leading House fiscal conservative, has criticized the Democratic bill as "packed with funding for unrelated items” such as commercial fisheries in American Samoa and roof repair of museums in Washington.

Senate Republicans tried to strip commercial fisheries and other non-immediate funding from their chamber’s bill.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., also targeted the fisheries disaster funding, unsuccessfully proposing an amendment to cut $150 million that could go to Alaska, the Gulf Coast and New England states.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., urged House leaders to quickly bring the Senate bill to the chamber floor to allow a vote.

He also the Senate bill provides "very good groundwork" for seeking Sandy aid next year, should the House vote against the legislation.

 House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also urged House leaders to allow a vote.

"Our fellow Americans are waiting for relief to rebuild their homes, businesses, communities and lives,” the California Democrat said. “Now that the Senate has acted … the House must do the same immediately.”

The measure includes $11.5 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's chief disaster relief fund and $17 billion for community development block grants, much of which would help homeowners repair or replace their homes. Another $11.7 billion would help repair New York City's subways and other mass transit damage and protect them from future storms. Some $9.7 billion would go toward the government's flood insurance program. The Army Corps of Engineers would receive $5.3 billion to mitigate flood future risks and rebuild damaged projects.

To court votes, Democrats last week broadened some of their bill's provisions to cover damage from Hurricane Isaac, which struck the Gulf Coast earlier this year. A provision was added to the $2.9 billion allotted to Army Corps of Engineers projects to reduce future flooding risks; the coverage area for that program will now include areas hit by Isaac in addition to Sandy. Democrats also shifted $400 million into a community development program for regions suffering disasters, beyond areas struck by Sandy.

A Coburn amendment to reduce the federal share of costs for the Army Corps of Engineer projects to reduce future flooding risks also failed.

Most of the money in the $60.4 billion bill -- $47.4 billion -- is for immediate help for victims and other recovery and rebuilding efforts. The aid is intended to help states rebuild public infrastructure like roads and tunnels, and help thousands of people displaced from their homes.

Coburn and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, frequent critics of government spending, targeted what they called "questionable" spending in the Democratic bill, including $2 million for roof repairs at Smithsonian Institution museums and $58 million in subsidies for tree planting on private properties.

A McCain amendment to strip the tree subsidies failed.

Republicans also criticized $13 billion in the Democratic bill for projects to protect against future storms, including fortifying mass transit systems in the Northeast. Republicans said however worthy such projects may be, they are not urgently needed and should be considered by Congress in the usual appropriations process next year.

The Democratic bill included many large infrastructure projects that often require years to complete, but Republicans said the CBO estimate of such drawn-out spending undercuts the urgency of the Democrats' aid package.

More than $2 billion in federal funds has been spent so far on relief efforts for 11 states and the District of Columbia. FEMA's disaster relief fund still has about $4.3 billion, and officials have said that is enough to pay for recovery efforts into early spring.

New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, District of Columbia, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, New Hampshire, Delaware, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are receiving federal aid.

Sandy damaged or destroyed more than 72,000 homes and businesses in New Jersey. In New York, 305,000 housing units were damaged or destroyed and more than 265,000 businesses were affected.

The Associated Press has contributed to this report.