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Senate OKs $50.5 billion in Sandy aid

A home badly damaged by superstorm Sandy rests

A home badly damaged by superstorm Sandy rests on its side along the beach in the Belle Harbor section of Queens. (Nov. 5, 2012) Credit: AP

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate last night approved the long-awaited $50.5 billion federal aid bill to help New York and other states recover from superstorm Sandy's devastation three months ago.

The Sandy emergency funding bill passed narrowly by a vote of 62-36 after all Democrats and a handful of Republicans voted for it, allowing it to exceed the 60-vote threshold. The bill now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

"I will sign this bill into law as soon as it hits my desk," Obama said last night.

"At long last, relief is now coming to our homeowners who need to rebuild, small businesses who are trying to reopen, and communities that have laid out billions of dollars for repairs after the storm," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

But before the final vote, the bill's backers had to beat back an amendment by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to institute a ½ percent federal spending cut for the next nine years to pay for the Sandy aid. Members of both parties joined to reject the amendment in a 62-35 vote.

Passage of the aid bill, combined with congressional approval on Jan. 4 of $9.7 billion for national flood insurance claims, means New York and other Sandy-damaged states will get almost all of the $60.4 billion the White House requested on Dec. 7.

The House approved the $50.5 billion package on Jan. 15, after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) unexpectedly canceled a New Year's Day vote and then rescheduled it after an outcry from Northeast Republicans.

The aid includes $11.5 billion for FEMA disaster relief, $16 billion for community development block grants and $13 billion for "mitigation" to prevent damage from future storms.

The aid package still falls short of the more than $80 billion that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie estimated their states need to repair and restore damaged homes, businesses and communities, and rebuild to protect against future storms.

In the debate leading to the vote Monday, Republicans argued it was time to end the practice of borrowing to provide money for disasters and emergencies.

"We have to stop and consider the fact that we are more than $16.5 trillion in debt," Lee said as the Senate debated his amendment.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) also objected to the tens of billions of dollars for long-term construction projects to protect against future storms. "Probably it should be high priority," he said. "But is it an emergency? No."

Schumer argued that New York taxpayers have sent money to all other parts of the country when those areas faced floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes -- and that now Republicans were trying to change the rules after New York suffered a disaster.

Schumer said the 300,000 New York families whose homes were damaged and 265,000 small businesses shut down by the storm need the aid now.

"Please. We waited 91 long days. We can't wait any longer," Schumer said. "Simply put, we must pass this bill today."The Congressional Budget Office said it will take at least a decade for the $50.5 billion to be spent. The nonpartisan budget office estimated that $3.6 billion would be spent through the end of this year, $11.299 billion next year and $9.911 billion in 2015.

FEMA said that as of Friday, it had provided $1.6 billion in disaster assistance to New Yorkers in the 13 counties, including Nassau and Suffolk, designated for aid.

In a joint statement after the vote last night, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut said members of the Senate recognized the urgency "of approving the full aid package and its importance in rebuilding our battered infrastructure and getting our millions of affected residents back on their feet as quickly as possible."

"To all Americans, we are grateful for their willingness to come to our aid as we take on the monumental task of rebuilding and we pledge to do the same should our fellow citizens find themselves facing unexpected and harsh devastation," they said.

"This is the most important first step to getting the aid," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), adding that she and the New York delegation will work to make sure that there are no bureaucratic obstacles to delivery of emergency funding.

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