WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate passed a $60 billion disaster relief bill Friday that includes funding to support struggling groundfishing fleets in Maine and other northeastern states.
On a 60-35 vote, senators defeated an attempt to strip $150 million in funding for four federally designated fisheries disasters — including the Northeast groundfishery — from the larger relief bill for mid-Atlantic states that were hit by Hurricane Sandy in October.
Maine’s Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe voted to maintain the fisheries funding.
The bill now goes to the Republican-controlled House, where it could face stronger opposition because of its size and scope.
If approved by the House as written, the relief bill will likely provide millions of dollars to support Maine’s groundfishing fleet, which has shrunk to just a few dozen boats and faces additional austere catch limits on cod and other species.
Maine, like other states, would likely have broad flexibility in its use of the money.
Meredith Mendelson, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said the highest-priority uses for the funding would be to help fishermen cover the cost of at-sea monitoring and other fishing-sector management costs.
“Those costs are typically paid for now by individual members of groundfishing sectors,” said Mendelson.
The priorities were identified by state officials and fishermen, who typically have opposed direct payments to fishermen, Mendelson said. But even if the line item survives a House vote, Maine won’t expect large sums.
“We would want to be very targeted in how any resources are appropriated, should that happen,” she said.
Cod fishing is often credited with helping to build New England in Colonial America. But overfishing and other factors have depleted cod stocks, prompting austere catch limits on the relatively few groundfish boats that still operate.
Most Maine fishermen have switched to lobster or other species, leaving less than 50 boats in the state with federal permits. And the region’s fishermen are bracing for catch limits on some species that are 70 to 80 percent less next year than in 2011.
The northeastern groundfishery became eligible for additional federal support in September when the U.S. Department of Commerce declared it an economic disaster. It was the fourth time since 2005 that a fishery in Maine had been declared a commercial disaster, with the other three covering shellfish because of red tide.
It is up to Congress to appropriate money, so lawmakers from the region inserted a budget item into the superstorm Sandy disaster relief bill.
The bill contains disaster assistance for three other fisheries: Chinook salmon in Alaska, blue crabs in Mississippi, and fleets in New York and New Jersey that were affected by Hurricane Sandy.
Some senators objected to the inclusion, arguing that the $60 billion relief bill was laden with issues unrelated to Hurricane Sandy that could be handled separately next year.
They also argued that any funding for the fisheries disaster should be offset by spending cuts elsewhere.
“All we are doing is stealing from our kids,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a vocal critic of government borrowing and the author of the amendment to strip the fisheries funding from the bill. “If we’re going to do $150 million for fisheries, ought we not cut spending somewhere else to pay for it?”
Senators from the affected states cautioned their colleagues against setting a precedent that would require offsets that could delay funding for future natural or economic disasters.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., pointed out that Congress approved disaster relief within two weeks of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, while two months have passed without a disaster bill for Sandy’s victims.
Menendez said he welcomed the inclusion of funding for other disasters.
Kevin Miller — 317-6256
On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC