More than two months after Superstorm Sandy struck, Congress on Friday overwhelmingly approved $9.7 billion to pay flood insurance claims for the many home and business owners flooded out by the storm
A 354-67 vote in the House came days after Northeast Republicans erupted over House Speaker John Boehner's decision to delay a vote earlier in the week; all of the no votes were cast by Republicans. The Senate passed the bill later in the day by unanimous agreement.
"It's the right step," said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
The bill gives more borrowing authority to the National Flood Insurance Program to pay about 115,000 pending Sandy-related claims as well as about 5,000 claims unrelated to Sandy.
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Northeast lawmakers say the money is urgently needed for victims of one of the worst storms ever to strike the region. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had warned that the National Flood Insurance Program would run out of money next week if Congress didn't provide additional borrowing authority to pay out claims. Congress created the FEMA-run program in 1968 because few private insurers cover flood damage.
The flood insurance measure is the first phase of a proposed Sandy aid package. Boehner agreed to Friday's vote after the controversy over delaying House action on a broader Sandy aid package. Under Boehner's new schedule, the House will vote Jan. 15 on an additional $51 billion in recovery money.
Senate action on that measure is expected the following week; financially strapped local governments are awaiting the money.
Northeast lawmakers say the money is urgently needed for storm victims awaiting claim checks from the late October storm, which was one of the worst ever to strike the Northeast, ravaging the coast from North Carolina to Maine, with the most severe flooding occurring in Atlantic City, N.J., New York City and Long Island and along the Connecticut coastline.
"People are waiting to be paid," said Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., whose district includes Atlantic City and many other coastal communities hard hit by the storm. "They're sleeping in rented rooms on cots somewhere, and they're not happy. They want to get their lives back on track, and it's cold outside. They see no prospect of relief."
As with past natural disasters, the Sandy aid proposals do not provide for offsetting spending cuts. Some tea party House Republicans and other fiscal conservatives favor cutting other federal programs to pay for some or all disaster costs.
The Club For Growth, a conservative group, on Friday urged lawmakers to oppose the bill, saying that Congress should only approve Sandy aid in installments to make sure the money is wisely spent and that any new Sandy aid should be offset with spending cuts elsewhere.
"Congress should not allow the federal government to be involved in the flood insurance industry in the first place, let alone expand the national flood insurance program's authority," the group said in a statement.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., a fiscal conservative who voted against the flood bill, said he was among those with concerns about the budget deficit. "We have to talk seriously about offsets," Huelskamp said. "We can't take $60 billion off budget, that's my problem with it."
The current debate over Sandy aid comes barely a year after Congress and the White House set up a new system to budget help for victims of hurricanes, tornadoes and floods before they occur. The new disaster funding scheme permits aid money to be added to the budget in line with amounts budgeted in recent years. The idea was to avoid battling and uncertainty over disaster funding.
Damage from Sandy, however, was so extensive that it's swamping the $12 billion disaster aid budget cap for the current year.
Boehner, of Ohio, had promised a House vote on Friday after his decision to delay an action on a broader Sandy relief package provoked outrage from Northeast Republicans, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who said he'd lost trust in GOP leaders in Congress after being promised a vote earlier this week.
New York Republican lawmakers who met with Boehner after the uproar said he explained that after the contentious vote Tuesday to avoid major tax increases and spending cuts called the "fiscal cliff," he didn't think it was right to schedule the vote before the previous Congress ended on Thursday.
About 140,000 Sandy-related flood insurance claims have been filed, FEMA officials said, and there are about 115,000 pending claims. Many flood victims have only received partial payments on their claims.
Sandy was the most costly natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and was blamed for at least 120 deaths. Northeast lawmakers have complained that it took just 10 days for Congress to approve about $50 billion in aid for Katrina but that it hasn't provided aid for Sandy relief in more than two months.
The storm damaged or destroyed more than 72,000 homes and businesses in New Jersey. In New York, 305,000 housing units were damaged or destroyed and more than 265,000 businesses were affected.
"States and local communities need to know the money will be there before they can give a green light to start rebuilding," said LoBiondo.
More than $2 billion in federal money has been spent so far on relief efforts for 11 states and the District of Columbia struck by the storm. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, New Hampshire, Delaware, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia are receiving FEMA aid.