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First Sandy Disaster Relief Bill Sent to President

Quickly following House action, the Senate on Friday cleared an initial installment of aid for states damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

The chamber passed the bill (HR 41) by voice vote shortly after the House advanced the measure 354-67, more than two months after the storm devastated parts of the East Coast.

The bill would temporarily grant $9.7 billion in additional borrowing authority for the National Flood Insurance Program. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Wednesday that without additional borrowing, the flood insurance program would run out of money for processing claims next week. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the measure into law.

“People who have been devastated by the storm will be able to continue to move forward with their lives,” said Republican bill sponsor Rep. Scott Garrett, whose home state of New Jersey suffered an estimated $36.9 billion in damages.

Before acting on the bill, House Democrats spent much of the floor debate criticizing the delay leading up to consideration of the bill.

“While it is never too late to do the right thing, it is late that we’re doing this thing,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.

Just days before the end of the 112th Congress, House leaders proposed consideration of a Senate-passed measure that would have provided $60.4 billion in disaster aid for communities affected by Sandy. Members of the New York and New Jersey delegations said they expected a vote on the measure, but after passage of the fiscal cliff deal just before midnight on Tuesday, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, closed off any additional votes for the 112th Congress. That legislation officially died at noon Thursday; legislation from one Congress does not carry over into the next.

New York Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who spearheaded his chamber’s passage of the $60.4 billion emergency aid package, criticized House leaders for breaking the Senate-backed package into pieces, calling the $9.7 billion measure a “good but small first step.”

At a Friday news conference after the Senate cleared the measure, Schumer said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has promised that the next Sandy assistance bill the House passes will be the first order of business when the Senate returns in two weeks.

“We hope and pray that the next bill will be similar” to the Senate package, Schumer said. “We don’t expect it to be the same.” He added that he hopes House Republicans will not strip the bill of important provisions, saying language in a House measure would make it difficult to fund the National Institutes of Health and the Army Corps of Engineers.

While praising Schumer’s work on the package, Reid said on the floor Friday that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., worked “extremely hard,” to get the first installment of assistance through the House.

“It’s too bad that it’s taken so long,” Reid said, comparing the devastation of Hurricane Sandy with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. He said Congress provided aid to the Gulf Coast within days but has taken more than two months to do so for New England.

“The people of New Orleans, in that area, they were hurt, but nothing in comparison to what’s happened to the people in New England. Almost a million people have lost their homes,” Reid said.

Some of the harshest criticism of the House leadership’s delay on Sandy aid came from within the GOP. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Rep. Peter T. King of New York led the attacks on the speaker for not bringing the Senate aid package, which passed that chamber 62-32 on Dec. 28, to the House floor.

“I’m saying anyone from New York and New Jersey who contributes one penny to congressional Republicans is out of their minds,” King told Fox News on Wednesday morning. He called Boehner’s decision to let the 112th Congress end without House action on a disaster relief package a “disgrace” and “immoral.”

But House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the Senate-passed bill would have been taken up by the House if it did not direct too much money and resources to districts outside the area affected by the storm.

“The pork we will not vote on today is in fact the pork that was in this bill from the Senate. I hope we will negotiate a clean bill that only deals with the men and women and families on the Eastern Seaboard that need to be taken care of,” Issa said.

The conservative group Club for Growth highlighted the House-passed bill (HR 41) as a key vote and, in a blog post Friday, urged all members to vote “no.”

“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 post said.

Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., voted against the bill.

“I agree with my colleagues that we must help those affected by Hurricane Sandy,” he said in a written statement Friday. “We should meet all of their needs as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, Washington’s legislative response fails on both counts. It refuses to distinguish — or even prioritize — disaster relief over pork-barrel spending.”

In the statement, Ryan added that it would be “irresponsible to raise an insolvent program’s debt ceiling without making the necessary reforms,” referring to the flood insurance program’s troubled financial history.

Schumer retorted at the afternoon press conference that “to hold homeowners who desperately need this money and have paid in this money as hostage to reform, that’s unconscionable.”

Boehner and Cantor announced Wednesday that the House will vote on the $50 billion remainder of the Obama administration’s disaster relief request on Jan. 15.

Kerry Young and Annie Shuppy contributed to this report.

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