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Senate approves $60.4 billion Superstorm Sandy aid bill

By Doug Palmer and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Friday approved a $60.4 billion aid package to pay for reconstruction costs from Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged mid-Atlantic and northeastern states, after defeating Republican efforts to trim the bill's cost.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urged the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to quickly take up the bill, which includes $12 billion to repair and strengthen the region's transportation system against future storms.

"There is no time to waste," Reid said.

Both chambers have to agreed on a package by January 2, when the current term of Congress is expected to end, or restart the process of crafting legislation in 2013. The Senate approved the bill 62-32, with most Republicans voting no.

"We beat back all of the crippling amendments," said Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, which suffered the largest monetary damage in the storm.

"The century-old tradition of different parts of the country rallying to help those who are beleaguered because of difficult natural disasters continues," Schumer said.

The bill's chances in the next few days could depend on whether President Barack Obama and congressional leaders reach a deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" of tax increases and spending cuts set to begin taking effect in the new year.

House Republican leaders have not yet decided whether to take up the Senate bill, a Republican aide said.

The bill also provides $17 billion in Community Development Block Grants to help rebuild homes, schools, hospitals and other buildings destroyed by the late October storm, help small businesses and improve the power infrastructure.

Senate Republicans complained the $60.4 billion reconstruction package requested by Obama is more than the annual budgets for the departments of Interior, Labor, Treasury and Transportation combined.

HOUSE ACTION UNCLEAR

Senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, offered an alternative that would have provided $23.8 billion in funding to help victims of the storm through the end of March and give Congress time to determine additional needs.

"Let me just say, we simply are allowing three months for the Congress of the United States, the representatives of the taxpayers' dollars, to assess, document and justify additional expenditures that go beyond emergency needs," Coats said just before his amendment was defeated.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, a Republican from Kentucky, would still prefer to pass a stop-gap bill to meet immediate needs and wait to do another package after better estimates come in, a committee aide said.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated about $8.97 billion of the Senate bill would be spent in 2013, with another $12.66 billion spent in 2014 and $11.59 billion spent in 2015.

The Senate bill is considerably less than the $82 billion in aid requested by New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the states that bore the brunt of damage from the storm.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, was in Washington this month, lobbying lawmakers for the larger amount.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund now has less than $5 billion available.

The damage to New York and New Jersey coastal areas was on a scale not seen since Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast and flooded New Orleans in 2005. Two weeks after that storm hit, Congress approved $62.3 billion in emergency appropriations.

Lawmakers passed numerous subsequent emergency funding requests over several years to cover damages from Katrina, which topped $100 billion. A number of Gulf State Republicans supported the Sandy relief bill.

Republicans were successful in requiring offsetting spending cuts for $3.4 billion in mitigation work to prevent future disasters. Some Democrats said this would set a precedent for future disaster aid bills.

(Reporting By Doug Palmer and David Lawder; editing by Todd Eastham)

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