(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. House passed the first installment of emergency disaster aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy after harsh criticism of House leaders by fellow Republicans including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for delaying a vote.
The 354-67 vote allows the government flood insurance program to continue paying damage claims to about 120,000 policyholders. The measure, raising the program’s borrowing authority by $9.7 billion, needed a two-thirds supermajority to pass under fast-track procedures. The Senate probably will clear the measure later today.
“This legislation is the first necessary step” to provide the aid that New York, New Jersey and Connecticut need “after the most devastating storm in the history of our region,” said New York Republican Peter King.
Republican House leaders rushed the legislation to the floor on the new Congress’s second day after King and other lawmakers protested Speaker John Boehner’s cancellation of a January 1 vote on a larger package. King had said after the delay that anyone from his state and New Jersey who gave money to the party’s congressional campaigns “should have their head examined.”
Sandy struck the Northeast October 29, packing hurricane-force winds and driving flood waters that left more than 125 dead in 10 states. The storm inundated New York City’s subway system and ravaged shore communities from New Jersey’s Atlantic City to Bridgeport, Connecticut.
In today’s vote, 193 Democrats were joined by 161 Republicans in passing the measure, while 67 Republicans opposed it. Without action by Congress, the flood insurance program’s borrowing authority would be exhausted January 7 and the fund wouldn’t be able to pay new damage claims, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican.
The speaker said the House will vote January 15 on two other measures that would raise the amount of aid to $60 billion.
Today’s vote is “too little and too late,” said New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone. If the House had voted on the full plan earlier this week “it would have been on the president’s desk and we would have started to rebuild the shore,” he said. “Now we have another delay.”
Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, the new chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said he would push legislation to privatize the national flood insurance program that he said “is beyond broke.”
The protest against Boehner’s January 1 decision was led by Christie, who called the postponement “disappointing and disgusting.”
As political pressure increased, Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia met January 2 with King and other Republican lawmakers from the two states and promised to schedule today’s vote.
The measures scheduled for a Jan. 15 vote include $17.3 billion in short-term emergency relief that the Appropriations Committee approved for the storm-ravaged states over the next year, Rogers said.
Boehner and Cantor showed “a full understanding of how passionately we feel this needs to be done,” New Jersey Republican Frank LoBiondo told reporters after the meeting in the speaker’s office. Boehner told lawmakers he canceled the vote on the disaster aid package after 151 of the 236 Republicans voted against a bill averting tax increases for most Americans.
“The speaker simply said it was his decision,” LoBiondo said. After the meeting, King said he was forgiving of the party’s leadership and said, “that’s in the past.”
A second measure the House plans to consider January 15 would provide another $33 billion for long-term rebuilding projects in New York and New Jersey to prevent coastal damage from future storms and to repair damaged transportation systems, including New York City’s subway.
Together the three pieces of legislation would appropriate $60 billion, the amount the Democratic-controlled Senate passed December 28 on a 61-33 vote.
Republicans who opposed the Senate measure said much of the money won’t be spent before 2015. Lawmakers say there is no guarantee the House will pass the $60 billion package this year.
“A much more prudent way is to dole out the money as it’s needed” rather create a large fund of “easier money,” said Georgia Republican Jack Kingston, an Appropriations Committee member. He predicted the House will pass $27 billion in flood- insurance borrowing authority and emergency assistance to help recovery efforts in the next year.
Proponents of the full $60 billion appropriation say the larger amount is needed now so authorities can begin planning for long-term rebuilding projects.
“If we are going to rebuild and protect the Jersey shore, why would you rebuild it in such a way that doesn’t protect it if there is another storm?” LoBiondo said. “It’s a significant amount of money but it’s not an unreasonable amount of money.”
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