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With Senate to act on Sandy funds, chance for other emergency money slips away

The region that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy last October is close to getting the federal aid that has been requested to help rebuild, but other disaster-hit areas of the country may be left waiting.

Colorado watersheds devastated by last June’s wildfires still need protection from melting snows, spring rains and mudslides. And Alaska fishermen are still looking for federal aid to cope with a fishery disaster and with industrial contaminants and debris from Japan’s 2011 tsunami.

But the chance to get emergency federal funds for those pressing needs is slipping away.

Susan Walsh / AP

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. walks out of the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Jan. 4, 2013, following the counting of Electoral College votes.

Next week the Senate is slated to take up the Disaster Appropriations Relief Act to aid individuals and businesses recovering from Hurricane Sandy. The House overwhelmingly passed the $50.7 billion bill Tuesday night.

“While the House bill is not quite as good as the Senate bill, it is certainly close enough. We will be urging the Senate to speedily pass the House bill and send it to the President’s desk,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D- N.Y., a member of the Senate leadership whose state suffered massive damage from Sandy in late October.

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Congress was never legally barred from providing funds in that bill for other disasters far away from New York, even as far as away Alaska.

In fact, the disaster spending bill which the Senate passed last month to respond to Hurricane Sandy did provide $125 million for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, some of which would have been used to restore Colorado watersheds damaged by last June’s wildfires.

“No one questions that we need to help the hurricane victims in the Northeast, but wildfire-relief is not ‘pork,”” said Sen. Mark Udall, D- Colo., Wednesday.

In the past, emergency spending bills enacted in the immediate aftermath of one catastrophe have included funds for other disasters.

Related: House OK's $50.7 billion in Sandy emergency funding

Case in point: the emergency spending bill President Barack Obama signed in July of 2010 included $5.5 billion not only for recovery from the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil discharge off the coast of Louisiana, but also for hurricanes Katrina (2005), Rita (2005), Gustav (2008), and Ike (2008) as well as the 2010 floods in Rhode Island, Tennessee, and other states.

But members of Congress from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut want the $50.7 billion which the House passed on Tuesday to be available immediately.

Including funds for disaster relief in places that Sandy didn’t hit is a tough sell: any amendment added by the Senate would necessitate sending the amended bill back to the House for another vote.

“Sen. Begich is talking with Senate leadership and other senators affected by unaddressed disasters about amending the House bill to ensure fishermen in their states get their needs addressed,” said Amy Miller, Begich’s spokeswoman. “Historically, disaster-aid funding bills include multiple disasters, and that’s how Sen. Begich thinks it should be done,” she explained. “He may propose an amendment to make a point about how he thinks disasters should be funded, but if it’s not getting any traction he’s not going to make a big stand that winds up delaying aid to Sandy victims.”

Udall said Wednesday the House's decision this week to not include money for wildfire relief in the Sandy bill was “unbelievable.” He added that communities in his state “are now vulnerable to floods and other long-term effects of the 2012 fires. The long-term costs and damages will make this now-rejected relief funding seem like mere peanuts.”

Udall spokesman Mike Saccone said Wed that “We suspect this (the disaster relief bill) will be sent through by unanimous consent,” which would mean no opportunity for adding amendments.

Just as New Yorkers such as Schumer can make the case that Sandy funding is urgent – in order for homeowners to hire contractors to rebuild homes, for instance – so, too, time is of the essence in the aftermath of Colorado’s wildfires: spring rains means clogged streams and reservoirs and more outlays by local water districts.

Of course, another disaster need not wait until the spring tornado season or the late summer hurricane season. It may be just a few weeks away.

For example, on Jan. 30, 2010 Obama signed a disaster declaration for the state of Oklahoma after a severe winter storm hit the state two days earlier.

But in an era of fiscal strain, with Obama and GOP congressional leaders struggling over spending cuts and an increase in the government’s borrowing limit, a new disaster might not necessarily mean a new disaster relief bill any time soon.