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House to Begin Voting Friday on Aid for Sandy Victims

7:27 PM, Jan 2, 2013   |    comments
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By MALIA RULON HERMAN
and BRIAN TUMULTY
Gannett Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - The House will vote Friday on a $9.7 billion measure to fund the National Flood Insurance Program, then will act two weeks later on an additional $50.3 billion in disaster relief for victims of Superstorm Sandy, House Republicans said Wednesday.

Without approval of additional borrowing authority by Congress, the flood insurance program will run out of money by Monday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said.

Nearly 140,000 flooding claims related to Sandy have been filed so far, and $1.7 billion has been paid out. A delay in action by Congress would delay payments on more than 115,000 claims, FEMA said in a statement Wednesday.

Republican Rep. Pete King of Long Island said the package will add up to the approximately $60 billion in disaster aid sought by Northeast states pummeled by the Oct. 29 storm.

The Senate passed a $60.4 billion disaster aid bill on Friday, but that vote will be meaningless after the new Congress is sworn in at noon on Thursday. At that point, work on Sandy disaster aid begins again from scratch.

The Senate, however, may be able to give the flood insurance measure expedited treatment, given that it was part of the $60.4 billion package the passed the chamber Friday with 62 votes, including 12 from Republicans.

The business of passing emergency aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy likely will be the first test of whether the new Congress can put aside partisan bickering.

Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York called the latest development "a positive step forward for the families and businesses still struggling after Sandy'' and vowed to "urge Senate leadership to make this our first priority in the next Congress."

Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said it would have been "far better'' for the House to act before the end of its term, but the new plan "at least... provides a path to produce the needed $60 billion for New York and New Jersey by the end of the month."

King said the disaster aid the House plans to take up beginning Friday "will be the same combined package that was not voted on yesterday."

That means the House will pursue its original plan to consider the $50.3 billion in two parts: $17.3 billion in emergency funding to pay costs until March and $33 billion for long-term projects to protect beaches and the region's transportation system against another storm.

In a joint statement Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Republican Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia reiterated the terms of the deal, saying the Sandy aid will be the first item considered on Jan. 15, which will be the first full legislative day of the new Congress.

"Getting critical aid to the victims of Hurricane Sandy should be the first priority in the new Congress, and that was reaffirmed today with members of the New York and New Jersey delegations," they said.

Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey of Harrison called the agreement to hold House votes "good to learn.''

"Now that this commitment to consider the full supplemental appropriations package has been made, I will continue working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure it is kept," said Lowey, who will be the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee in the new Congress.

Lawmakers had expected the Sandy aid legislation to come up for a vote in the House on Wednesday. It was pulled from the calendar late Tuesday night, after the House voted on compromise "fiscal cliff" legislation.

The speaker "just felt that in view of all that was going on yesterday, it wasn't the right time," King told reporters after meeting with Boehner.

Boehner's decision to pull the bill prompted Republican and Democratic lawmakers from New Jersey and New York to blast him in angry floor speeches.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called the decision "petty" and lambasted House Republicans - and Boehner in particular - for showing "callous indifference to the suffering of the people of my state."

"Shame on you. Shame on Congress," Christie bellowed during a Wednesday afternoon news conference in Trenton. "Put aside the politics and help our people now."

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo described the failure by the House to vote as "a dereliction of duty."

"I believe that government matters, and the functioning of government matters,'' Cuomo said. "And to leave New York and New Jersey and thousands of people in this holiday season on their own and abandoned was wrong and disgraceful in a lot of ways."

President Barack Obama also had called on the House to take action.

"When tragedy strikes, Americans come together to support those in need," he said. "I urge Republicans in the House of Representatives to do the same ... and pass it without delay for our fellow Americans."

"The people's lives who are devastated here are very real," Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey said Wednesday. "This is not something in the abstract."

LoBiondo and others had pushed to pass the bill before noon on Thursday, which is when the 112th Congress disbands and the 113th Congress takes office. Action after that date means the bill will need support from a whole new class of incoming freshmen.

"We did an enormous amount of legwork," LoBiondo said. "We knew we needed a certain number of Republican votes and I believe we had exceeded that."

Now, he said, "we're going to have to go back and roll up our sleeves and get it done."

Lawmakers from New York and New Jersey had said the region's transit systems and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can't start major repairs without funding certainty.

Federal money also is needed to pay back coastal towns that have depleted their funds responding to the emergency and help localities rebuild through Community Development Block grants.
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Contributing: Jessica Bakeman, Gannett Albany Bureau

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