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New Jersey and New York press case for $80 billion Sandy aid bill

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New Jersey and New York officials are stepping up their campaign for $80 billion in federal aid to finance cleanup and rebuilding efforts following superstorm Sandy, despite a media report the White House will request only $50 billion.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pressed his case for the flood-damaged region in closed-door meetings with President Barack Obama and House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner on Thursday.

Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, said the $45 billion-$55 billion range reported by The New York Times on Wednesday was not sufficient to meet estimated damages of $37 billion in New Jersey, $42 billion in New York and $3 billion in Connecticut.

"We think the numbers that were supplied were reliable. We're somewhere in the $80 billion area," Lautenberg told reporters in the Capitol. "Right now, there's a difference in view as to what we need and what we can get."

The White House expects to send Congress a supplemental appropriation request to replenish the federal disaster relief fund by the end of this week, White House spokesman Jay Carney told a news briefing. He declined to provide further details.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate said on Tuesday the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund had about $4.88 billion left, only enough for aid disbursements until about early spring. About $2 billion has been paid out so far for Sandy relief.

Robert Menendez, the other Democratic senator from New Jersey, added: "We want it to be robust. But we are working all the parties to make sure we make the case for that robustness, and we'll see."

After the New York Times report on Wednesday, which cited unnamed administration and congressional officials, both New Jersey senators and their counterparts from New York issued a statement saying that $50 billion was not enough.

"While $50 billion is a significant amount of money, it unfortunately does not meet all of New York and New Jersey's substantial needs," they said in the statement, issued jointly with New York's Democratic senators, Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer.

Christie declined to speak to reporters as he left the Capitol, leaving Boehner's office through a back hallway. An aide said he was rushing to catch a train to New York in time to make a late-afternoon taping of an appearance on "The Daily Show with John Stewart," the political satire show.

Christie's visit followed similar pilgrimages within the past week by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to lobby Congress for disaster aid funds.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan also hinted in congressional testimony on Wednesday that the aid request would be lower than the damage estimates, saying some of the damage costs would be paid by private insurance coverage.

Less than two weeks after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005, Congress had appropriated $62.3 billion in emergency aid. But cost estimates grew quickly, and more hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast that year, prompting Congress to approve tens of billions of dollars in additional aid funds.

A massive aid request could complicate tense negotiations between the White House and Congress over resolving the "fiscal cliff" of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts at the end of the year.

Some House Republicans have called for disaster funding to be offset by spending cuts elsewhere, but Menendez said he was assured by Boehner that a majority of the Republican caucus did not share that view.

Menendez added that just as he and Lautenberg voted to appropriate funds to aid the victims of Katrina, tornados in Joplin, Missouri, last year and other recent disasters, "we expect our colleagues to be with us now here."

(Editing by Peter Cooney)

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