House Completes $60 Billion in Hurricane Sandy Relief

The U.S. House completed a $60.2 billion aid plan to rebuild communities damaged by Hurricane Sandy two weeks after Northeast Republicans denounced Speaker John Boehner’s cancellation of a vote on the relief.

The House voted 241-180 last night to add a $50.5 billion package of aid to a $9.7 billion measure passed by both houses of Congress on Jan. 4. Yesterday’s measure includes $17 billion to meet the immediate needs of Sandy victims in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and $33.5 billion for long-term reconstruction.

House Republican leaders who brought the legislation to the floor needed to rely on virtually unanimous Democratic support to pass it. With Republican fiscal conservatives calling for cuts in other government programs to offset the emergency spending, most of the party’s House members voted against the relief package.

The plan now goes to the Senate, which voted for $60.4 billion in aid on Dec. 28 during the last session of Congress. The Senate is likely to take up the measure on Jan. 22, said a Senate Democratic leadership aide who asked to not be named in discussing the chamber’s schedule.

“There is a federal responsibility to act,” said Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican. “We have a national interest in getting this region on its feet as quickly as possible.”

Flooded Subway

Residents of the three states “produce over 17 percent of the wealth of this country,” Cole said, so “having that area up and operational and prospering is critical to the prosperity of the country.”

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

House Republicans representing the region, including Representative Peter King of New York, and New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie protested when Boehner canceled a planned Jan. 1 vote on the package. They pointed out that Congress passed $51.8 billion in relief within 10 days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005.

“Anyone from New York or New Jersey who contributes one penny to congressional Republicans is out of their minds,” an angry King said on Fox News the day after the canceled vote.

‘Piecemeal Approach’

Boehner, an Ohio Republican, then scheduled a vote on Jan. 4, the second day of the new session. That day, the House and Senate agreed to raise the national flood-insurance program’s borrowing authority by $9.7 billion.

That enabled the flood-insurance program to keep paying 120,000 claims from property owners in the Northeast whose homes and businesses were damaged by flooding caused by Sandy.

“The piecemeal approach has hurt our disaster response effort,” said Representative Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat. “Without knowing whether more aid is absolutely going to come, governors and mayors can’t sign contracts with construction companies” and plan rebuilding, she said.

King rejoiced over the House action, telling reporters, “I never thought two weeks ago tonight that we’d be here” celebrating the passage of the aid package. Instead, he said, it appeared that “it would be months before we would get anything.”

The political dynamic would have been different if Christie “had not spoken out when he did,” King said.

Republican Opposition

Still, yesterday’s debate reflected a growing consensus among House Republicans about financing disaster relief with budget cuts. On final passage, supporting the aid package were 192 Democrats and 49 Republicans. Opposing it were 179 Republicans and 1 Democrat.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was among 157 Republicans to support an amendment to cut 1.63 percent from all discretionary spending, including defense. It was defeated when 71 Republicans joined 187 Democrats in opposing the amendment offered by South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney.

Disaster aid “shouldn’t be used as a grab-bag of spending having nothing to do with emergency relief,” said California Republican Tom McClintock, one of those voting against the relief package.

Citing a Congressional Budget Office analysis, McClintock said most of the $60.2 billion package “won’t even be spent this year.”

Ryan Opposition

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican and his party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, said he voted against the legislation because “it funds billions in grants for non-Sandy expenses,” including highway repairs in the Virgin Islands.

“We can provide aid without mismanaging our resources and without increasing our massive debt,” Ryan said in a statement.

Representative Frank LoBiondo, a New Jersey Republican who pressed for the aid, said people in the Northeast “are not just whining, they are not just uncomfortable, they are devastated. They’ve had everything ripped from them.”

“Disaster means disaster and emergency means emergency,” LoBiondo said. “We were there for you, Florida, when you had your hurricane and God bless you if you think you are not going to have another hurricane.”

The $17 billion portion of the aid offered by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, includes $3.9 billion for the repair of publicly owned hospitals, local roads and facilities operated by gas and electric utilities.

Beach Replenishment

It would provide $235 million to rebuild the flood-damaged Veterans’ Administration hospital in lower Manhattan as well as other VA medical facilities in the region.

The additional $33.5 billion in aid, sponsored by New Jersey Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen, would give the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers almost $4 billion to clear navigation channels, repair damaged beaches and prevent shore erosion in future storms.

In a separate vote on Frelinghuysen’s measure, those opposing it included Cantor, a Virginia Republican, who supported the final package that included the two aid proposals.

The speaker by tradition usually doesn’t vote, and Boehner followed that practice yesterday.

Christie joined with New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy, both Democrats, in issuing a joint statement expressing gratitude for the House action.

Governors’ Statement

“The tradition of Congress being there and providing support for Americans during times of crisis, no matter where they live across this great country, lives on” in the vote, the governors said in their statement.

Boehner decided not to proceed Jan. 1 on the aid plan just after the House voted to raise taxes on individuals earning more than $400,000 and couples earning more than $450,000. A number of House Republicans said the emergency aid should be offset by spending cuts, according to former Ohio Representative Steve LaTourette, a Republican who left office Jan. 3.

The bill is H.R. 152.

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