By Richard Gaines
---- — Prospects were considered dimming Monday night for the U.S. House to approve the Senate-passed version of a $60.4 billion Hurricane Sandy relief bill that includes $100 million for Massachusetts and five other states whose groundfisheries have been declared economic disasters.
The 112th Congress expires at midnight Tuesday, and if the House fails to match the Senate’s vote on Friday for the Sandy bill, federal relief efforts for victims of Sandy and the failure of the Northeast groundfishery will be delayed indefinitely and placed in the hands of the 113th Congress and the Obama administration, already in the midst of a disruptive transition in the Department of Commerce and NOAA.
“Some of my colleagues and I are pressing Speaker (John) Boehner to bring the Senate-approved Hurricane Sandy relief package to the House floor before we adjourn, so the President can promptly sign it into law,” Congressman John Tierney Monday afternoon in an email to the Times. “However, this bill is not part of the House’s legislative schedule today, and time is running out.
”House Republican Leadership determines which bills come to the House floor for a vote – and, if they decide not to bring up the Senate-approved bill before we adjourn, Congress will have to start over next year and much-needed relief will be at least delayed and potentially denied to our fishing community and families across the East Coast,” said Tierney, who advocated for the inclusion of fisheries disaster assistance funding in any Hurricane Sandy relief legislation.
The Senate voted 60-32 late Friday to send the Sandy bill — with the fisheries relief appropriation — to the House. The effort to provide financial help to the Northeast groundfishing industry states was made more difficult by the delay in conceding the groundfishery had failed, based on existing data and extrapolations of far worse times to come inevitably in 2013.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry led the Senate efforts to get the fisheries disaster relief included in the special supplemental bill for Sandy victims, which reached more than $60 billion. The new fishing cycle for the groundfishery begins May 1, 2013 and runs through April 30, 2014.
The first and most comprehensive effort at the showing of a fisheries failure as defined by the Magnuson-Stevens Act was made in November 2011 by Gov. Deval Patrick, using two socio-economic studies and reference to NOAA data, organized by the Massachusetts Fisheries Institute. Within weeks, New Hampshire and Maine filed for disaster declarations, and Connecticut, Rhode Island and Connecticut filed more recently.
NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco assured the Senate Commerce Committee in October 2011 that the disaster declaration material would be fast tracked for a rapid decision, but nothing was heard until September, just as attention was diverted to the elections.
On Dec. 12, Lubchenco announced her decision to resign at the end of February. In an internal email to NOAA employees, she said she was proud of “notable progress” in returning fishing to profitability.”
The Associated Press reported that House Republican leaders were discussing paring from the Sandy bill a number of Senate-approved additions, and though the fisheries disaster relief was not explicitly mentioned, it had been the target of Senate Republicans.
But Democratic House Rep. Frank Pallone and some of his fellow New Jersey lawmakers returned to Washington on Sunday intent on pressing Republican leadership and other lawmakers to back the Sandy relief bill.
“The best way to handle it is to just pass the Senate bill,” said Pallone, whose oceanfront district sustained major damage during the Oct. 29 storm.
Washington, however, remained focused Monday on negotiating an elusive deal to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” of tax increases and spending reductions set to hit today, the turn of the new year. And support for the Sandy bill among House Republicans is uncertain.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky and other conservatives are calling for a much smaller bill to cover only the most urgent needs, putting off until 2013 legislation to address long-term needs such as protecting beaches and transportation networks from another storm.
“The problem is that later never comes,” Pallone said.
A Senate amendment from Indiana Republican Sen. Dan Coats would have reduced the aid package to just $24 billion. It was defeated on a party-line vote.
“These arguments that are being used to divide it up make no sense,” Pallone said. “If we don’t do it now, then it becomes more difficult to do it later.”
(Material from the Associated Press is included in this report.)
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.