Congress Passes First Stage of Hurricane Sandy Relief

The U.S. Congress cleared the first installment of disaster aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy after attacks on House leaders by fellow Republicans, including New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie for canceling an earlier vote.

The 354-67 House vote yesterday was followed by unanimous passage in the Senate. The measure allows the government flood insurance program to continue paying damage claims to about 120,000 policyholders in the region by authorizing a $9.7 billion increase in its borrowing authority.

“We should not have parades down the street because this bill has passed,” Democratic New York Senator Charles Schumer said in a floor speech. “The major work of helping the victims of Sandy is still ahead of us.” He called the measure passed yesterday “a small down payment on the much larger amount of aid that needs to get through Congress.”

Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, released a joint statement after the vote calling the measure “a necessary and critical first step” toward aiding the storm’s victims.

“It is now time to go even further and pass the final, and more complete, clean disaster aid bill,” they said.

‘Head Examined’

Republican leaders rushed the legislation to the House floor on the new Congress’s second day after Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, and other lawmakers protested Speaker John Boehner’s cancellation of a Jan. 1 vote on a larger package. King had said after the delay that anyone from his state and New Jersey who gave money to the party’s congressional campaigns “should have their head examined.”

Sandy struck the Northeast Oct. 29, packing hurricane-force winds and driving flood waters that left more than 125 dead in 10 states. The storm inundated New York City’s subway system and ravaged shore communities from New Jersey’s Atlantic City to Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Christie, Cuomo and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, requested almost $83 billion in federal money to rebuild the region.

In yesterday’s vote, 193 Democrats were joined by 161 Republicans in passing the measure, while 67 Republicans opposed it. Among those voting against the measure was Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, last year’s Republican vice-presidential nominee.

‘Insolvent’ Program

Ryan said in a statement he voted against the bill because “it would be irresponsible to raise an insolvent program’s debt ceiling without making the necessary reforms.” The flood-insurance program is already $20 billion in debt, he said.

At a news conference, Schumer said Ryan’s reasoning “is just terribly harsh to a homeowner who’s lost his home. Should they sit around and wait two years” until “we reform the program?”

Without action by Congress, the flood insurance program’s borrowing authority would be exhausted Jan. 7 and the fund wouldn’t be able to pay new damage claims, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican.

“The victims of Superstorm Sandy can wait no longer,” said Representative Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat. “It’s been 11 weeks; haven’t they suffered and waited long enough?”

Boehner said the House will vote Jan. 15 on two other measures that would raise the amount of aid to $60 billion. Those bills then would go to the Senate.

The pending measures include $17.3 billion in short-term emergency relief that the Appropriations Committee approved for the storm-ravaged states over the next year, Rogers said.

Senate Action

Schumer said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, assured him that the aid will be “the first order of business” when the Senate reconvenes Jan. 22. Schumer said he hoped Congress could enact the full package by month’s end.

Yesterday’s vote was “too little and too late,” said New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone. If the House had voted on the full plan earlier this week “it would have been on the president’s desk and we would have started to rebuild the shore,” he said. “Now we have another delay.”

The protest against Boehner’s Jan. 1 decision was led by Christie, who called the postponement “disappointing and disgusting.”

As political pressure increased, Boehner, of Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia met Jan. 2 with King and other Republican lawmakers from New York and New Jersey and promised to schedule yesterday’s vote.

Boehner’s Reasoning

Boehner and Cantor showed “a full understanding of how passionately we feel this needs to be done,” New Jersey Republican Frank LoBiondo told reporters after the meeting in the speaker’s office. Boehner told lawmakers he canceled the vote on the disaster aid after 151 of the 236 Republicans voted against a bill averting tax increases for most Americans.

“The speaker simply said it was his decision,” LoBiondo said. After the meeting, King said he was forgiving of the party’s leadership and that “that’s in the past.”

A second measure the House plans to consider Jan. 15 would provide another $33 billion for long-term rebuilding projects in New York and New Jersey to prevent coastal damage from future storms and to repair damaged transportation systems, including New York City’s subway.

Together, the three pieces of legislation would appropriate $60 billion, the amount the Democratic-controlled Senate passed Dec. 28 on a 61-33 vote.

No Guarantee

Republicans opposing the Senate bill said much of the money wouldn’t be spent before 2015. Some lawmakers say there is no guarantee the House will pass the $60 billion package this year.

“A much more prudent way is to dole out the money as it’s needed” rather create a large fund of “easier money,” said Georgia Republican Jack Kingston, an Appropriations Committee member. He predicted the House will pass $27 billion in flood-insurance borrowing authority and emergency assistance to help recovery efforts in the next year.

Proponents of the full $60 billion say the larger amount is needed now so authorities can begin planning for long-term rebuilding projects.

“If we are going to rebuild and protect the Jersey shore, why would you rebuild it in such a way that doesn’t protect it if there is another storm?” LoBiondo said. “It’s a significant amount of money but it’s not an unreasonable amount of money.”

The measure is H.R. 41.

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