WASHINGTON — New England lawmakers lost a battle Tuesday to secure millions of dollars in federal aid for the region’s groundfishing fleet as part of the latest efforts to provide emergency relief to Hurricane Sandy victims.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted 241-180 Tuesday night to pass a $50.7 billion Sandy relief package nearly 80 days after the superstorm slammed into the mid-Atlantic. But to the dismay of lawmakers from New England and other regions, the House bill offers no assistance to victims of other disasters such as western wildfires and struggling the northeastern groundfishing industry.
The Senate had voted in late December for a $60.4 billion relief bill that included funding for other disasters around the country. But that bill died in the House, and Republicans concerned about the size and scope of the relief package removed the non-Sandy projects from their own bill.
The decisive blow came late Monday when the House Rules Committee voted along party lines to keep three amendments from Massachusetts representatives from being considered on the floor. The proposals sought between $116 million and $150 million for fisheries disasters.
As a result, advocates for the fisheries funding will have to either attempt to re-insert the money in the bill Senate next week or start from scratch with a new appropriations measure, meaning significant delays. Lawmakers from Alaska and Mississippi had also sought aid for fisheries disasters in their states.
Fisheries advocacy organizations expressed dismay at the House action.
“The House’s failure to provide disaster assistance to fishermen in desperate need is outrageous,” Matt Tinning, executive director of the advocacy group Marine Fish Conservation Network, said in a statement. “The very legitimate request to provide aid for the victims of fisheries disasters has unfortunately been used to make a political point here in Washington. To the fishermen around the country whose livelihoods may hinge on this funding, nothing is less relevant than a political point made at their expense.”
The U.S. Department of Commerce designated the northeastern groundfishery as an economic disaster last year due to concerns about the health of stocks of cod and other groundfish. New England’s groundfishing fleet – already a fraction of its former size – is facing additional, severe catch limits this year.
Congress often provides funding to multiple disasters in a single appropriations bill. But while the fisheries funding had bipartisan support, the issue has taken on partisan overtones due to the opposition of some House Republicans to using the Sandy relief bill as a vehicle to address other disasters. Some Republicans had also sought unsuccessfully to force Congress to offset the costs of the relief bill by cutting elsewhere in the federal budget.
Those partisan tensions were evident on the House floor on Tuesday. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., accused House Republicans of telling Massachusetts fishermen “to take a long walk off a short pier.”
“I support getting help to the people of New Jersey and New York and Connecticut,” Markey said. “But we cannot forget the other Americans who suffered last year. The fishermen of Massachusetts, the fishermen of this country cannot be forgotten.
Rep. John Tierney, a Massachusetts Democrat who represents Gloucester and sponsored one of the amendments, called the decision to block consideration of the fisheries amendments “callous and outrageous.”
“This is not acceptable. This is not acting like there’s ‘one country under God,’” Tierney said, responding to earlier comments. “This is not acting in fairness.”
But a spokesman for the House Rules Committee, Doug Andres, told The Associated Press that the committee had asked the Democrats “to unify around one approach to deal with the fisheries issue.”
“They failed to do so,” he said.