Sandy bill escapes the Senate ‘unscathed,’ and Schumer sees a model for filibuster reform

Schumer, Gillibrand and Menendez. (Reid Pillifant)
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WASHINGTON—Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand were in a cheerful holiday mood on Friday afternoon, even as the rest of Washington cleared out of the Capitol concerned about the fiscal cliff and the prospects for a tax compromise before the New Year.

"This is a very good day for New York and New Jersey," Schumer said at a press conference with Gillibrand and New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, shortly after the Senate approved a key vote on the region's $60.4-billion request for disaster aid.

Democrats had been concerned that Republicans would filibuster the bill, and that the G.O.P. leadership might make the package a party-line vote, making it difficult to secure the requisite Republicans to clear the 60-vote threshold. Republicans had expressed reservations about the immediacy of some of the money in the request, and whether including fishery disasters as far away as Alaska were germane to the region's needs, and floated their own $23.8-billion package, which Democrats decried as insufficient.

In the end, Schumer—working with Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander—allowed Republicans to offer amendments to the bill, in exchange for not blocking it. Those amendments will be considered next week, and while Schumer conceded some might pass, he said the aid package "after much fighting in the Senate...will pass virtually unscathed."

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"I hope this is sort of a model for how the Senate can work in the future," Schumer said. Later, he was asked if he saw the deal on the Sandy bill as a potential model for filibuster reform, and avoiding a so-called "nuclear option" that some longtime senators have worried would forever alter the upper chamber.

"I absolutely do," he said. "And Senator Alexander and I have been involved in trying to avoid the nuclear option and we regarded this as a pretty good test."

Democrats did lose on a subsequent budget vote, which will require $3.4 billion in offsets from next year's budget appropriations. "I think it's an awful precedent," Schumer said.

The challenge now is to get the bill through the House, where Republicans on Thursday night bucked Speaker John Boehner on his fiscal cliff compromise, throwing the body into uncertainty.

Schumer said they had appealed to New Yorkers with ties to the House leadership to make calls on their behalf, and had gotten "good vibes" in response.

"We asked Governor Christie today—Bob Menendez and I—to make a couple last-minute calls to Republicans, and so I'm hopeful we can have the same results in the House," he said.

Gillibrand made her own personal holiday appeal to the House Republicans.

"As the Republicans in the House return home for the holidays, they will be with their families, they will be with their loved ones, in their homes, and have all their needs met and I hope they reflect over this time that we are a people of goodwill and we always responded to people's needs," she said.

In the hallway after the press conference, the two New York senators parted with some good cheer.

"Merry Christmas to you and Johnnie and the boys," Schumer said, as reporters swarmed to ask him about the fiscal cliff.

"Thanks, honey, bye," she said.