Congress passes $9.7 billion in Sandy aid

Some Republicans opposed bill fearing its effect on deficit

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WASHINGTON -- Congress has approved $9.7 billion in new aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy, with a face-saving quick move by the House taken three days after Speaker John Boehner earned scathing criticism from New York and New Jersey Republicans for canceling a late-night vote on the funds.

The bill, which will allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay out claims to those who held federal flood insurance, was approved in the House on a 354-67 vote. After the House action, the Senate also adopted the bill in a quick unanimous voice vote, sending it to President Barack Obama for his signature.

Mr. Boehner, R-Ohio, seems to have had reason to be concerned about bringing a larger $60 billion spending measure to the floor Tuesday: All the votes against the smaller bill Friday came from his own party members. They were encouraged by the conservative Club for Growth, which argued that the additional disaster spending should be offset with cuts to other government programs. The continued GOP opposition could spell trouble for a larger $51 billion Sandy bill that Mr. Boehner has promised will come before the House on Jan. 15.

And it provided a second example in a week of a bill approved with more Democratic support than Republican backing, an outcome that deeply troubles conservatives about the efficacy of their governing majority in the House.

Former Republican vice-presidential candidate and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was among Republicans opposing the measure. So, too, were more than a dozen House freshmen who took office Thursday.

Among them was Pennsylvania's newly sworn Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, who said in a statement: "My thoughts and prayers go out to all of those affected by Hurricane Sandy. The affected areas and families need relief. However, I came to Washington to control spending in a sensible manner.

"The bill passed today costs almost $10 billion and adds to the deficit. My concern is that we in Congress should have worked to find a way to pay for this now."

The rest of Western Pennsylvania's delegation supported the measure.

Still, the bill's passage quieted a political storm for Mr. Boehner that erupted when he pulled the bill from the floor late Tuesday, worried that he would have trouble corralling GOP votes for it from members exhausted after a debate over a bill to avert the "fiscal cliff" by raising taxes on the wealthy.

Mr. Boehner's decision prompted an eruption of anger from lawmakers and others from states affected by the November superstorm. New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie told reporters that Mr. Boehner had ignored four calls from him Tuesday night and blamed "toxic internal politics" in the GOP caucus for dropping the ball.

The New York Daily News ran a cover with Mr. Boehner's face next to an image of the Statue of Liberty -- with a bloody knife in her back.

Canceling the Tuesday vote meant the 112th Congress expired without action, delaying the vote until the 113th Congress took over Thursday. Still, Friday's vote -- with the speedy Senate approval -- seems to have quieted the GOP criticism. Republicans from affected states who had been threatening to withhold their support for Mr. Boehner to serve as speaker in the new Congress all backed him when the vote was held Thursday.

Democrats nonetheless pressed their criticisms of Mr. Boehner for the delay, noting that the $60 billion bill that passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote died with the congressional turnover. The fate of the bulk of that bill will not be settled until later this month.

"This was the most callous action I've ever seen. The leadership of this House should be condemned for it," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. In the Senate, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he feared that the second, much larger installment of aid would get tripped up in the House in coming weeks. "To be a bride and left at the altar once is bad enough. To be left twice would be unconscionable," he said, calling Friday's measure a "good, but small" step.

But Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., who was pushing for passage of the legislation, warned colleagues that the nation's flood insurance program is "unsustainable," with more money being paid out in claims than is collected in premiums. "That can't go on," he said. "We must work together on that."

In a joint statement, Mr. Christie and New York's Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo praised the House action as "necessary and critical first step," but said it was only a "down payment" on the $51 billion package.

The House vote was the new Congress' first significant legislative act. The House later recessed until Jan. 14. Likewise, after taking action on the Sandy-related legislation, the Senate recessed until Jan. 21, when it will return for inaugural ceremonies.

nation

Post-Gazette Washington Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello contributed.


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