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December 28, 2012

Fishing aid faces Senate floor fight

Republican Sens. John McCain and Tom Coburn have signaled an effort to strip from a $60.4 billion Hurricane Sandy disaster relief bill today the $150 million targeted for fisheries disaster funding — the bulk of which would go to the five coastal New England states and New York whose fishermen work the Atlantic for groundfish.

The Northeast fishing industry, including groundfishermen working out of Gloucester, was recognized as an economic “disaster” in September by the acting secretary of Commerce, based on stock and economic assessments and projected draconian catch limits for 2013. But the Commerce disaster declaration did not come backed by any emergency funding, so federal lawmakers worked to add fisheries disaster money onto the Sandy emergency aid bill.

The Sandy relief bill and its amendments — including coverage for fisheries disasters — draws toward the nation’s center stage a struggle for survival by the groundfishermen of the Northeast, centered around Gloucester and New Bedford.

The Sandy debate today is destined to unfold inside the overarching drama of moment — the Obama administration’s transition into a second term and the lame duck session of the 112th Congress, still all negotiating a means of cutting spending and raising revenues before Jan. 3 to avert the figurative free fall off the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

Nominated last week by President Obama to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State, Sen. John Kerry is leading the effort to shepherd the Sandy bill through the Senate with the fisheries relief intact, and in time for House passage, which is far from assured.

As McCain and Coburn size things up, the debate over Sandy relief spending and a variety of other measures added to the supplemental spending bill in the Senate Appropriations Committee include some that don’t carry the urgency of the Sandy relief. One element of the bill is $336 million for AMTRAK, the senators noted, calculating that nearly two thirds of the monies in the supplemental appropriation bill “will not be spent for nearly two years.”

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