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House OKs $51B in Sandy aid; package goes to Senate

A home in Lindenhurst damaged by superstorm Sandy.

A home in Lindenhurst damaged by superstorm Sandy. (Dec. 19, 2012) Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

WASHINGTON -- The $51 billion superstorm Sandy recovery aid package overcame objections and several amendments by fiscal conservatives to win passage Tuesday in the U.S. House, 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 241-180 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.

Democrats provided 192 votes toward passage, Republicans 49.

Now the legislation goes to the U.S. Senate, which last year 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.

New York and New Jersey House members -- and several Long Islanders who came to witness the vote -- celebrated the victory, which just two weeks ago had seemed near, until 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 an earlier 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 House has now approved just above $60 billion in Sandy aid, nearly matching the $60.4 billion bill the Senate passed.

"I would have thought two weeks ago tonight we'd be here," said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), recalling how he expected the bill to pass on New Year's Day. "It's a bit like a dream in a way, the fact that it happened when it was dead."

Noting he had gotten more Republican votes than he had counted on to help pass the bill with what he called a "strong vote," King said, "It's very reassuring, very gratifying."

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) said, "I'm delighted that the House finally passed the Sandy relief bill. But the real heroes are the New Yorkers rebuilding their lives, homes and businesses."

The Sandy recovery package won strong victories as it confronted two key hurdles Tuesday: votes on an underlying $17 billion bill and a damaging 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 who voted against the Sandy aid.

"To my colleagues who are from states that who 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 first key vote 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 this year 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, 162 for it. The House then easily passed the underlying language of the $17 billion bill in a 326-92 bipartisan vote.

The second key vote came on an amendment by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) to add $33.7 billion to the $17 billion bill, saying the money was for longer-term projects, including fortifying for future storms, but was still needed immediately.

It passed 228-192, after a few amendments were approved, including one by Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-Brooklyn) to add $1 million to repair Sandy-damaged veterans' cemeteries.

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