Vitter, Landrieu vote for storm aid, split on offsets

Louisiana’s Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter both voted late Monday in support of the $50.4 billion Hurricane Sandy disaster aid package that is now headed to the desk of President Barack Obama for his signature.

Where the two Louisiana senators differed, though, was the vote on an amendment that failed, but would have cut nearly 0.5 percent of the federal discretionary budget each year through 2021 in order to offset much of the Sandy spending.

Vitter, a Republican, voted for the amendment by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, while Landrieu, a Democrat, opposed it. The amendment was defeated on a vote of 35 for and 62 against.

Landrieu warned that the amendment — if attached — would “kill” the overall Sandy support for northeastern states.

The U.S. Senate approved, on a 62-36 vote, the overall supplemental package.

Landrieu took to the Senate floor twice Monday to staunchly argue that the federal government should not respond to disasters and emergencies by seeking budgetary offsets right away. That is not how Congress responded after Hurricane Katrina. The U.S. funded much more expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, she said, under a Republican administration without seeking budgetary offsets.

“We should respond with the same sense of urgency” to help Americans suffering from a domestic natural disaster, Landrieu said. “We should not use disasters as an excuse to cut from the budget.”

Discretionary spending is not out of control, she said, “despite what you hear on FOX News.” The greater issue is with mandatory spending where increased funding is going to support the “greatest generation” through hospice care, Medicare and more, Landrieu added.

Lee argued the nation has a massive deficit problem and the amendment was only for cutting “one-half of 1 percent” of discretionary spending over nine years. But. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., argued those dollars would be cut from education, health care and law enforcement.

Three months have passed since Superstorm Sandy and the people in New York, New Jersey and other impacted states needed a “big yes” from Congress, Landrieu said. The federal government needed to act so the “private sector … has the confidence that the government will be there and they will begin to invest themselves,” she added.

Landrieu, who has helped lead the Sandy supplemental process as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, said she “unfortunately” has become an expert on disasters and the recovery process thanks to Hurricane Katrina and more.

Katrina killed more than 1,800 people and caused well more than $100 billion in damage. While Sandy may have destroyed more homes, the superstorm took the lives of about 250 people and caused an estimated $60 billion to $80 billion in damage.

The Senate originally passed a little more expensive Sandy supplemental bill, but the House two weeks ago put that bill aside and passed another version that cut out some of the so-called “pork.”

That alleged pork included money for Gulf Coast fisheries in Louisiana and elsewhere impacted by Hurricane Isaac last year, as well mechanisms to potentially get more funding in Louisiana for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects and community development block grants.

“It affects the Gulf Coast in a negative way,” Landrieu said of the House changes, but she still supported the House-approved bill for fear of allowing it to die altogether.

In the House, Reps. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge; Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson; and John Fleming, R-Minden, previously voted against the Sandy supplemental package while Reps. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman; Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette; and Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, voted in favor of it.

The legislation to aid the Northeastern states was approved on a 241-180 vote, with a majority of Republicans opposing it.

The argument against the aid package was that the legislation included too many long-term mitigation dollars and too many community development block grant dollars that lack specifics on how they will be spent.