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Talks on fiscal cliff may bury Sandy aid bill

Two months after Hurricane Sandy tore up the East Coast, Congress has yet to pass the $60 billion in relief aid requested by President Obama for hard-hit states, including New Jersey and New York.

Two months after Hurricane Sandy tore up the East Coast, Congress has yet to pass the $60 billion in relief aid requested by President Obama for hard-hit states, including New Jersey and New York.

The Senate is expected to approve the relief fund Friday. But unless the House acts before the new legislative session begins at noon Thursday, the bill will die, forcing lawmakers to restart the process.

"Right now there's a bigger priority, and that's the fiscal cliff," said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of Politics at Rider University.

The House went into recess Dec. 20 after House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) failed to gather enough votes to pass a tax-cut plan that might have avoided the fiscal cliff, the euphemism for drastic program cuts and tax increases that will go into effect automatically Tuesday. Economists have warned that without an alternative plan from Congress, the country could fall back into recession.

Gov. Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have expressed similar urgency for Congress to approve billions for their storm-ravaged states, which they say cannot rebuild without federal help.

Congressional leaders in both chambers spoke with Obama on Thursday, but only the Senate is in session and has prepared to pass the Sandy relief aid.

Some Democratic staffers in Washington have grumbled privately that Christie, a Republican whose popularity soared after the storm, has not used his bully pulpit to harangue House members to approve the Sandy bill.

With approval numbers that hit the 70s last month, it may appear that Christie can move heaven and earth. But he can't move Congress, especially under a tight timeline, political observers said.

"The governor has a much broader and diverse constituency than many of the House Republicans," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.

House members who represent fiscally conservative districts probably aren't in a rush to support a spending bill, he said. "All of them are probably looking over their shoulders wondering, 'If I support this, will I be supporting big government spending. . . . Will I be challenged in a primary?' "

When Boehner calls his members back to the Capitol, they have 48 hours to arrive, leaving little time to avert the fiscal cliff, let alone take up other matters, said U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat who represents many of the Shore towns devastated by Sandy.

The Sandy relief bill "is important enough that we should just be there to do that," Pallone said Thursday. "They're working feverishly in the Senate to get it done. We need to be there."

In a conference call with GOP rank-and-file Thursday, Boehner announced a House session for Sunday.

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak did not respond to calls and e-mails asking what the governor has been doing in recent days to spur action on the Sandy bill. The governor has had no public events in a week, but at a news conference Dec. 21 in Newark, he expressed frustration at the bill's delay.

"I would hope that the people of Congress could get their act together for about 15 minutes and help people who are suffering," Christie said.

He added, "If the Congress can't even help Americans who have had their homes and their lives destroyed by a natural disaster, then they might as well just board the place up and close it down because they're not doing any good for anybody, and that's on both parties."

But Sandy aid may be on the back burner as Obama and federal lawmakers eat up the final days of the session to prevent tax increases and defense budget cuts, among other drastic measures on the agenda, Baker said.

"It may simply get lost in the shuffle," he said. "It could be a long time before any money gets to those towns."

Perhaps Christie's influence is best in a long-game scenario, Dworkin said. If the bill doesn't pass next week, don't expect Christie to give up.

"This is a man who believes in scoring touchdowns, pushing the ball over the line," Dworkin said. "That may take some time, but I can't imagine him just throwing up his hands."

Besides, Christie's popularity is tied to Sandy, for good or for ill, Dworkin said.

"Rebuilding the Jersey Shore is the governor's legacy," Dworkin said. "To do it, he will need significant federal assistance, and I am sure he will pursue every avenue available continuously."