January 13, 2013

Washington Notebook: Superstorm Sandy aid tops House agenda

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON - House lawmakers will return to the Capitol this week, and topping their agenda will be another disaster relief bill for areas hit hard by Superstorm Sandy.

click image to enlarge

A fishing boat returns to the damaged Belford port in Middletown N.J., on Dec. 12, 2012. The port sustained nearly $1 million in damages from Superstorm Sandy, some of which its owners hope to recoup through federal storm aid.

2012 file photo/The Associated Press

Much of the debate will likely focus on the size and scope of the relief package. And part of that discussion will affect Maine fishermen who were largely spared Sandy's wrath but are struggling with their own economic disaster.

A Senate-passed bill for $60.4 billion in aid contained $150 million in relief for New England's groundfishery and economic disasters in three other regions. The House's first stripped-down, $9.7 billion bill did not include any fisheries money, and neither would a bill for an additional $17 billion that is expected to come to the House floor Tuesday.

On Monday, three Massachusetts Democrats will urge the Republican-controlled House Rules Committee to include $116 million to $150 million for fisheries in the Sandy relief bill expected to come before the House this week.

The three Democrats -- Reps. Edward Markey, John Tierney and Bill Keating -- are each taking a different approach in hopes of winning committee support to allow the amendments.

But even if their amendments make it to the House floor, they will have to overcome opposition from Republicans who argue that items unrelated to the October superstorm -- such as funding for New England's struggling cod and groundfish industry as well as for wildfires and an Amtrak expansion -- have no place in the bill.

"Our fishing communities face real and stark economic concerns and this emergency funding is critical to many of their survival," the three Massachusetts representatives said in a joint statement. "We urge the Republican-led Rules Committee to recognize the issues facing these small business owners, and allow the House to vote on our amendments."

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, is a co-sponsor of Tierney's amendment.

GUN DEBATE COMING

The debate over gun control will intensify this week.

On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden is expected to present President Obama with recommendations on reducing gun violence. The list is expected to include a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines as well as closing the so-called "gun show loophole" for background checks. House Democratic leaders, who are in the minority, plan to hold a hearing on guns Wednesday.

Maine has a rich hunting tradition, a large number of firearms and relatively few incidents of gun violence, so any gun control measures can be politically tricky for the state's congressional delegation.

Sen. Angus King, an independent, and Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree said in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings that bans on assault weapons and large ammunition clips should be on the table for discussion. This was a noticeable shift for King since the campaign.

Maine's two other delegation members -- Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud -- have remained mum on what they would support or oppose. And it's safe to say that their votes will be closely tracked by both sides.

Michaud's 2nd District includes much of rural Maine, and the Democrat has received strong support from the National Rifle Association. Collins hails from Aroostook County -- where hunting and guns are part of the heritage -- but has been on both sides of gun control measures. Due to her status as one of the few remaining moderate Republicans, The Washington Post named Collins one of the five senators "who will play key roles in determining the fate of any gun legislation."

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