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Sandy aid hits a Republican bump in the Senate

WASHINGTON - To officials in the northeastern United States, the $60.4 billion bill to help homeowners and businesses hammered by Hurricane Sandy is an essential piece of emergency federal aid.

WASHINGTON - To officials in the northeastern United States, the $60.4 billion bill to help homeowners and businesses hammered by Hurricane Sandy is an essential piece of emergency federal aid.

Republicans in Washington have a different impression.

Several in the Senate are casting the plan this week as a vehicle for excessive spending that runs counter to the ongoing talks on how to reduce the federal deficit.

"The proposal coming out of the Democrats is ridiculous," Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said Tuesday, a day after the bill was brought up on the Senate floor. "It's an outrageous amount of money, a majority of which, or at least a very large portion of which, has nothing to do with Sandy."

The GOP objections portend a bumpy road, raising questions about how much aid will flow to New Jersey and other hard-hit states, when it will arrive, and when residents and businesses will have certainty about the scope of support.

Toomey said that the Senate should "start from scratch" and that Republicans were working on an alternative to "meet the actual needs and not just go on a spending binge."

Democrats from New Jersey and New York have made impassioned pleas to help their constituents, bringing photos to the Senate floor showing houses torn apart, an island flooded, and streets covered in debris. Residents, they said, are trying to decide whether to rebuild or move on.

"I do hope that our colleagues understand the urgency of now," Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) said Tuesday night on the Senate floor.

Federal officials have said they have enough disaster relief money to last into spring, but the bill is meant to cover long-term rebuilding, relief for homeowners, and projects designed to limit damage from future storms.

Democrats had hoped for a Senate vote on the bill this week, but it is unclear if or when that will happen. Rules give Republicans the power to block proposals there, and Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) pushed for amendments Tuesday night.

Passage in the Republican-controlled House may prove even more difficult. GOP leaders there are typically hostile to new spending, though they have not taken a firm public stand on the measure.

Specific pieces of the sweeping bill have come under increasing fire. McCain on Tuesday sent critiques of 10 items to his nearly 1.8 million Twitter followers with the hashtag ShadySandySpending.

He pointed to $12.9 billion in mitigation projects to prevent damage from future storms, $5.3 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers - more than its annual budget - and $150 million in aid for fisheries as far away as Alaska.

"We're talking about $60 billion here. Come on," McCain told reporters.

In addition, two conservative groups, Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth, which Toomey once led, urged senators to oppose the bill.

The measure faces three significant hurdles: Some Republicans say the plan is too big. Others argue for passing a portion now and larger pieces later, since much of the spending is not immediate. And some raise concerns about the plans for new projects, such as dunes and sea gates, that go beyond rebuilding.

Democrats have strongly argued against breaking up the relief plan.

"A piecemeal recovery is a failed recovery," Menendez said. "You can't rebuild half of a bridge."

Everything in the bill would go to declared disaster areas, Menendez said. That includes Alaska fisheries.

Among the biggest pieces of the plan are $11.5 billion for FEMA's disaster relief fund, $9.7 billion for the national flood insurance program, $10.8 billion to repair damage to public transportation, and $17 billion in block grants meant to give local officials flexibility to address gaps in other programs.

New Jersey lawmakers argued that paying for mitigation plans, such as beach projects, would protect homes and make the next storm less costly. Menendez said areas with engineered safeguards against storms suffered far less damage than those left unprotected.

"Mitigation means rebuilding smarter and stronger," Menendez said.

Privately, Democrats say they hope to get all their needs into this bill. Wait, they say, and the urgency will fade, Washington will move on, and remaining aid requests will languish.