The $60 billion Sandy relief bill cleared a significant hurdle in the Senate Friday and Democrats predicted it could win approval in the chamber as early as Thursday, when Senators return from their Christmas break.
The Senate voted 91-1 to invoke cloture and set the stage for a final vote on the bill. In the arcane Senate, where filibusters so often derail legislation, getting over the 60-vote threshold to end debate and bring about a vote is often the biggest obstacle to passage.
“It’s a big victory, a big step forward and I fully expect that it will pass on Thursday,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.).
There are still obstacles in the Senate, though. As part of a deal to get the GOP to agree to end debate and move to a final vote, Democrats agreed to consider a number of Republican amendments, including a plan to cut the aid package to roughly $24 billion.
But any amendments will need 60 votes to pass (another piece of the agreement negotiated today), and with Democrats controlling the Senate, Menendez said the most significant changes are likely to be defeated.
“None of them will get at the core of the proposal,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.). Democrats only need simple majorities on the remaining votes to pass the bill.
Still, the House must also take up the proposal, and Republicans are usually hostile to new spending. While Democrats are hoping the House will pass whatever emerges from the Senate, GOP leaders there have said they are waiting to see what the final bill looks like.
Pennsylvania’s fiscally conservative Republican Sen. Pat Toomey scored a small victory in the Senate. He won a vote requiring the government to cut $3.4 billion in federal spending to offset some of the future mitigation projects included in the Sandy bill. Historically, disaster relief plans have not required budget cuts elsewhere, but Toomey argued that long-term projects do not represent emergencies, and spending on those items should be paired with cuts.
“There are genuine needs and we need to fund those needs,” Toomey said, and mitigation for long-term mitigation projects “might be a very appropriate spending, but it’s not an emergency.”
Instead, “it ought to be weighed in competition with the other pressing needs.”
Democrats said the plan set a dangerous precedent, but they emerged pleased overall with Friday’s vote as they headed home for Christmas.