By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Republicans sought to slash a $60.4 billion aid bill to cover reconstruction after Superstorm Sandy, proposing on Wednesday to fund only $23.8 billion in immediate disaster relief while assessing longer-term needs.
The far smaller initial amount is one of a number of Republican amendments aimed at cutting projects from a bill that they see as a "slush fund" loaded with questionable requests for spending on unrelated programs and big infrastructure.
Senator Daniel Coats of Indiana said his plan for $23.8 billion in initial funding would provide sufficient money for immediate needs through March 27, for work such as debris cleanup, repairing damaged equipment, rebuilding destroyed homes and businesses.
"It seems to me the most logical, responsible way to move forward is to identify the immediate needs and provide the immediate funding to meet those needs," said Coats, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
He said longer-term needs could be considered next year, as Congress works on approving new money to keep government agencies and programs funded after a stopgap measure runs out on March 27.
Senate Democrats are trying to push through President Barack Obama's full $60.4 billion Sandy disaster aid request before the end of the year.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund had about $4.3 billion as of Tuesday, but the request for new funding has become tangled up with Congress' tense talks over the year-end "fiscal cliff" of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts.
"We don't have time right now to get all the way through and analyze the actual losses that were attributable to Sandy," said Republican senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, adding that the full $60.4 billion looked like a "slush fund."
KATRINA FUNDS FLOWED SWIFTLY
Democrats argue that the full funding amount is needed to ensure that local businesses, municipalities and transit agencies in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut can launch full-fledged reconstruction projects immediately with the confidence that they will be fully reimbursed. Without the money approved, there will be delays, they say.
"This amendment will unnecessarily prolong the suffering of those affected by Superstorm Sandy, and needlessly leave entire communities vulnerable to future severe weather incidents," Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said in a statement. "The whole nation will feel the economic impact of a northeast crippled by languishing transportation infrastructure, forsaken small businesses, and families left without homes."
The move would mark a significant shift from Congress' actions following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the last storm to wreak destruction on a similar scale as Sandy. Within two weeks after Katrina's storm surge flooded New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities, Congress had appropriated $62.3 billion, and storm costs eventually topped $100 billion.
"When we had the devastation in New Orleans, we got the aid to those states very quickly," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor, noting that far more people were affected by Sandy's path of destruction in a heavily populated area.
"We have to make a decision on this very, very important legislation before we leave here this week," Reid said. "I would hope that everyone would cooperate, but we have to do this."
The $23.8 billion offered in the Republican plan would be less than 30 percent of the initial $82 billion aid request made by New York, New Jersey and Connecticut earlier this month, based on early damage estimates from the October 29 storm.
The Republican plan would eliminate some $13 billion in infrastructure improvements aimed at helping to prevent damage from future storms. Among these are projects to keep New York City subway tunnels from flooding and to build sand barriers to protect some shorelines from storm surges.
It labels $5.4 billion to make transportation systems more resilient as "non-Sandy related." The Amtrak passenger rail agency, a frequent target of Republican budget-cutting efforts would get only $32 million under the bill, instead of $336 million.
Coats said such mitigation efforts were "long-term projects" that should not be immediately funded without further study.
The Republicans also aim to cut out $150 million for rebuilding fisheries, including those damaged by disasters in Alaska and the Gulf Coast. It would exclude a $58.9 million Department of Agriculture request to replant trees on private property due to "unsubstantiated" estimates for damage from Sandy.
The plan and other amendments to the Sandy aid measure are expected to be considered on Thursday and Friday.
Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which normally acts first on spending bills, is hanging back to see whether Senate Republicans are successful in cutting the request down to size.
Asked if he would also proceed with an amount below the $60.4 billion sought by Obama, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, a Republican from Kentucky, said: "Let's see what the Senate does first."
(Reporting By David Lawder; editing by Christopher Wilson)