House OKs additional $51B in Sandy aid; package goes to Senate
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The $51 billion superstorm Sandy recovery aid package overcame objections and several amendments by fiscal conservatives to win passage Tuesday in the House of Representatives, putting it a key step closer to final congressional approval.
The recovery package, which combined a $17 billion bill and a $33.7 billion amendment, moved to a 241-to-180 bipartisan final vote after Republicans succeeded in stripping out $150 million for ocean study grants and $9.8 million to repair a wildlife refuge on a Connecticut island.
Previously, lawmakers had approved a $9.7 billion package to fund insurance claims from victims of the Oct. 29 superstorm, including homeowners in Rockland and Westchester counties.
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"The desperately needed relief in this bill will help families and individuals put their lives back together and assist in rebuilding transportation networks and public infrastructure vital to commerce and our quality of life," Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Harrison) said in a statement.
"Small businesses, schools, health care facilities and research institutions will have the support to restore vital services in their communities."
Freshman Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-Cold Spring), who represents parts of storm-ravaged Westchester and all of Orange and Putnam counties, said the package will help the Hudson Valley move forward.
"For our communities, families and businesses, the passage of Hurricane Sandy aid is much needed and long overdue," Maloney said. "After already being made to wait 79 days, folks across the Hudson Valley will not have to wait any longer for this essential help."
The legislation moves to the U.S. Senate, which in 2012 approved a similar measure and is expected to take up the House bill next week, with a goal of being done with its deliberations by the end of the month.
"While the House bill is not quite as good as the Senate bill, it is certainly close enough. We will be urging the Senate to speedily pass the House bill and send it to the president's desk," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a key strategist in the effort to win Sandy aid.
After weeks of bickering tied up vital relief funds, hurricane victims in the Hudson Valley and other parts of the Northeast finally are poised to get much-needed relief, but some lawmakers were still angry about the delays.
"In the past 20 years in facing disasters, this is the longest delay in providing assistance to affected states," said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx). "When [Hurricane] Katrina hit, Congress gave emergency funds right away -- with no strings attached. New York never got this courtesy."
Lawmakers who represent other storm-ravaged communities said they were happy with the vote.
"Solid victory. Much better than we thought," said Rep. Pete King (R-Seaford). "It makes final victory much more definite."
New York and New Jersey lawmakers in the House celebrated their victory, which just two weeks ago had seemed near before House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) stunned them by canceling a New Year's Day vote on Sandy aid.
After protests, Boehner promised Tuesday's vote and a vote on Jan. 4 that was needed to approve a $9.7 billion measure so the national flood insurance program could pay claims arising from Sandy.
The Sandy recovery package won strong victories as it confronted two key hurdles Tuesday: votes on an underlying $17 billion bill and a damage amendment, and votes on an additional $33.7 billion and proposed amendments.
But not before some fiery rhetoric on the floor.
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) railed against nonemergency spending in the bill.
"These families have a right to expect this money will be used for genuine emergency relief. But it's not," he said. "A tragedy like Hurricane Sandy shouldn't be used as an excuse for a grab bag of spending having nothing to do with emergency relief."
But Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) scolded McClintock and other lawmakers from disaster-prone states voting against the Sandy aid.
"To my colleagues who are from states that have had disasters, some rather recently, who have decided we need to change the rules of the game: Shame on you. What does the misery index have to get to for our constituents?" he asked.
The key vote in the first part of the bill came on an amendment by Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) to require a 1.63 percent across-the-board cut to discretionary federal spending for the rest of fiscal 2013 to pay for the $17 billion bill -- which was considered the most serious threat to the package.
The Mulvaney amendment was rejected, with 258 House members voting against it and 162 for it.
Had it passed, the underlying bill could have failed, King said.
Once the Mulvaney amendment failed, the House easily passed the underlying language of the $17 billion bill in a 326-92 bipartisan vote.
The second vote included amendments to a measure offered by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) to add $33.7 billion to the underlying bill for longer-term projects, including fortifying for future storms.
The Frelinghuysen measure has drawn the most criticism from fiscal conservatives and outside budget watchdog groups because they say it is not only for immediate emergency needs and that it includes money for disasters unrelated to Sandy.
Earlier, the House approved a procedural measure that determined how it would handle the overall Sandy recovery package and amendments to it in a 367-to-52 bipartisan vote, showing both parties wanted to move forward on the aid.