Tracking $20 Billion: White House Doles It At Inscrutable Pace

President George W. Bush has pledged to give New

York $20 billion in disaster aid, and we’re getting …

some of it.

When New York’s

Republican Congressmen reached a deal with the Bush administration on Nov. 16

to defer payment of some of the $20 billion in promised disaster aid following

the attack on the World Trade

Center, it put an end to a pleasant

delusion. Many New Yorkers thought their injured city would enjoy unlimited

good will from a Republican White House populated with Southerners and

Midwesterners long known for their indifference to all things New

York.

Now they know otherwise. Massive federal aid, even in the wake of

a terrorist attack, doesn’t come without political infighting.

That reality set in on Nov. 16, when a key Republican-upstate

Congressman James Walsh-broke with his Democratic colleagues from the city over

their demand that the White House hand over virtually all of the $20 billion in

promised aid. Under intense pressure from the Bush administration, Mr. Walsh

and his Republican colleagues agreed instead to accept $11 billion-up from $9.6

billion-this year, with the remainder to be sent at an unspecified future date.

The deal shattered the united front which the delegation had shown as it

lobbied for all the $20 billion now, lest a forest fire in Montana

or a hurricane in Florida cut

into New York’s billions.

As it stands now, New York

actually will  get between $11 billion

and $12 billion in relief and recovery money by the end of the year, when the

next appropriations bill is expected to be passed. That money will be parceled

out in as-yet-undetermined proportions by city, state and federal agencies. It

will pay mostly for heavy-duty repair of the disaster site and downtown

infrastructure, like the destroyed subway lines that once ran under the World

Trade Center.

What of the remaining $8 billion or so? It’s almost certain that New

York will receive the money eventually. The problem

is nobody knows when that will be. The White House has promised to deliver it

over an unspecified period of time-which, theoretically, could remain

unspecified for the foreseeable future. And if the economy worsens, or if

there’s a terrorist attack elsewhere, it seems equally certain that New

York’s needs will sink lower on the White House’s

list of priorities.

“A promise was made-$20 billion-and the promise was made now,”

said Representative Jerrold Nadler, whose West Side

district includes the World Trade

Center site. “They say we will get

the money eventually. In all likelihood, we will-but there’s no assurance. It’s

welshing on a commitment. You know damn well if we had that guarantee now, we

could use our political capital next year to get something else.”

In the weeks following the attack, leaders in Washington-particularly

Republicans in the White House-outdid themselves in rushing to the aid of a

wounded city. A grim and seemingly endless procession of hard-hatted leaders

from Congress and the White House turned up to tour the devastation downtown

and to pledge their solidarity with New Yorkers.

But with a looming national recession, a war in Afghanistan,

and now the collapse of New York’s

unified voice on Capitol Hill, Washington

seems to be reverting to something more like polite indifference.

“We thought it would be politically impossible for the President

to back away from his $20 billion pledge,” said Representative Anthony Weiner

of Brooklyn. “But it’s no longer verboten to say, ‘All right, enough for New

York already.’ That public dynamic has receded.”

Not only has it receded, but at this point no one really believes

there’s any chance of winning the rest of the $20 billion any time soon.

Governor George Pataki seems to have indicated that he has no interest in

confronting Mr. Bush over the money. Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary

Clinton, as well as their counterparts in the House, have been reduced to

hoping that the chunks of aid money they’ve managed to smuggle into other bills

survive the rest of the legislative process. And in a clear sign that the White

House no longer sees holding off on aid to New York as a political liability, Presidential

aides-including Vice President Dick Cheney-have very publicly lobbied the last

Republican holdouts in New York to drop their demands for full funding now.

“No one wants to risk the President’s good will,” said Fred

Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. “Pataki’s

performance was bizarre-he didn’t back [the New York Republicans] when the time

came. As a result, Bush wasn’t confronted with a rebellion at the crucial

moment.”

Indeed, when Mr. Walsh, the senior New Yorker on the powerful

House Appropriations Committee, finally decided to acquiesce to the White

House’s demand that New York Republicans stop asking for all the money now, he

knew that the will of his colleagues had already buckled.

On the morning of Nov. 16, at a meeting of Republican

Congressmen, Mr. Walsh was informed by a number of his colleagues that they

were no longer prepared to join in bucking the White House.

To date, all their leverage had been based on the threat that

they would join House Democrats to, in effect, grind business in the House to a

halt if they didn’t get the additional funds. But at that point, with the White

House pressuring them daily, many of the Republicans told Mr. Walsh that they

would support him publicly but, in the end, wouldn’t vote against a popular

President.

“Walsh and [upstate Republican John] Sweeney were doing well

getting money, but they were locked into an anti-Bush position on this,” said

Congressman Peter King of Long Island. “Saying that we

didn’t trust him to get us all the money was like calling him a liar. So those

of us at the meeting told Walsh and Sweeney that we were with them, and that

they could tell everyone that we were with them, but we weren’t going to [block

legislation in the House].”

Delegation Disarray

But there was another factor in the failure to win all of the

money originally pledged: New York’s

elected officials have been working at cross-purposes for a number of weeks,

undercutting each other’s bids and agendas. The House members focused on

securing as much of the $20 billion as possible. Mr. Schumer and Mrs. Clinton

pushed for $5 billion in tax breaks for downtown. The Governor, having been

stung by near-universal derision of a hastily conceived proposal for $54

billion in aid for projects around the state, seemed to cease public lobbying

of the Bush administration, instead returning to business in Albany. And Mayor

Rudolph Giuliani-perhaps with an eye on a future in Republican

politics-defended the White House, asserting that the city had enough money for

the moment: “Right now, we don’t need $10 billion-we would put it in [Treasury]

bills if we got it,” he told reporters at one point. The Mayor’s statement

became the coup de grace for

delegation efforts to extract further concessions from the White House.

“There were too many competing agendas,” conceded one

Congressional staff member.

Now the Republican members are taking a wait-and-see attitude

towards future funding and talking up the merits of the deal. “This was a very

positive outcome,” said upstate Republican John McHugh. “The administration has

said repeatedly that they would continue to provide aid to New

York. I think it’s hard to say to this President,

who’s been so good to us through all this, that we don’t trust him.”

Mr. McHugh also warned that New York

could lose out in the long run if officials continued to fight for immediate

increases in aid. “Some of the Democrats want to cloak the $20 billion in a

holy veil, even though our needs will eventually be much greater,” he said. “We

should be careful what we pray for, because we just might get it.”

Some Democrats, however, are already assessing what went wrong.

“Walsh and Sweeney were heroes here,” said Mr. Weiner. “But the people who are

undermining this effort are Giuliani and Pataki.”