GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

December 29, 2012

Fish aid dollars in limbo

Senate clears package, but House may let it expire

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — The U.S. Senate Friday easily beat back an effort to drop from the $60.4 billion Superstorm Sandy relief bill a package of $150 million in fisheries disaster aid, including funding for Massachusetts, the other four coastal New England states and New York whose fishermen ply the Atlantic for groundfish and face a cataclysm of cuts in catch limits next year.

But the successful defense of the fisheries disaster funding, led by Sen. John Kerry, might be for naught.

An amendment to strike non-Sandy related spending from the supplemental appropriation bill was defeated 60-35. Among New England senators from New England coastal states, only Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, voted to delete the non-Sandy spending, including the fisheries disaster funding from the bill.

”This is a big win for our fishermen, but this has been a fight more than a year in the making and there’s still work to do,” said Kerry in an email. “I’ve made their case to the leadership of the Senate, the Appropriations Committee and to the Administration to get this far, and I’ll continue to work with my Massachusetts colleagues in the House to make sure that this funding is enacted into law.”

But although the Senate was poised to pass the supplemental appropriation bill and send it to the House, the Republican leadership there was signaling Friday that it did not intend to consider the legislation before the end of the 112th Congress, which closes down on Jan. 3.

“We’ve not heard anything official,” Betsy Arnold, Congressman John Tierney’s chief of staff, said in a telephone interview late Friday, “but it doesn’t seem likely that the House will take up the Sandy bill.”

Tierney said that, except for being called back to session on Sunday, he has not heard what the House plans to do, but added he believes the Republican caucus is “somewhat paralyzed” by the pressure building to resolve the spending and revenue crisis caused by the Jan. 3 deadline to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

Speaker John Boehner has called the House back to work for Sunday, four days before the end of the session which is the deadline for achieving a negotiated three way deal — White House, Senate and House — on spending cuts and new revenue streams to avoid a suite of automatic spending cuts and tax hikes.

CQ Roll Call, a Capital Hill publication, reported Thursday that the Sandy supplemental spending bill was not discussed in a conference call that Republican leaders held with their members.

If the House demurs, as sources from both parties predicted Friday, the six states granted fisheries disaster status in September by declaration of the acting Secretary of Commerce in September will have to wait until the installation of the 113th Congress, which is unencumbered by any incomplete actions of the 112th.

The uncertainty surrounding any fisheries disaster aid is the latest delay facing the industry.

Gov. Deval Patrick filed his second, expanded case for a disaster declaration in November 2011, and soon was joined by the governors of New Hamsphire and Maine. But despite the assurances of NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing at the time that the disaster claim would be processed quickly, the admission that the groundfishery had descended into economic failure was put off for 11 months.

By September, when Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank finally approved the multiple requests, the presidential and congressional elections were looming, and the funding for the affected states was put off until after the nation voted.

Lubchenco announced on Dec. 12 that she was stepping down at the end of February, but claimed “our notable progress” includes “returning fishing to profitability” despite Commerce’s own recognition of the “economic disaster” in the Northeast.

Kerry led the fight to get $100 million in fisheries disaster relief added to the Sandy bill, which also was expanded by hundreds of millions to cover spending for such agencies as AMTRAK — all of which drew the ire of Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona.

“Dr. Coburn is disappointed the Senate voted to expand the scope of the bill,” his spokesman, John Hart, said in a telephone interview Friday.

“Delaying the Sandy recovery bill would strengthen the hand of conservatives who are seeking to reduce the spending bill, as the next major Sandy measure almost certainly will originate in the GOP-led House,” CQ Roll Call reported.

CQ Roll Call reported that, if the Senate’s Sandy bill expires, the next emergency spending measure would have to originate in the House.

Senate Democrats were able to fashion the pending $60.4 billion bill, which contains aid for disasters other than Sandy, from a previously passed House appropriations bill, but there will be no such vehicle handy once the 113th Congress begins.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.