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Congress OKs first installment of Sandy relief aid

WASHINGTON -- Congress cleared the first installment of emergency disaster aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy after harsh criticism of House leaders by fellow Republicans, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for canceling an earlier vote.

The 354-67 House vote Friday was followed by unanimous passage in the Senate. The measure allows the government flood insurance program to continue paying damage claims to about 120,000 policyholders by authorizing a $9.7 billion increase in its borrowing authority.

“We should not have parades down the street because this bill has passed,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a floor speech. “The major work of helping the victims of Sandy is still ahead of us.”

He called the measure passed today “a small down payment on the much larger amount of aid that needs to get through Congress.”

Republican leaders rushed the legislation to the House floor on the new Congress’s second day after Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., and other lawmakers protested Speaker John Boehner’s, R-Ohio, cancellation of a Tuesday 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 Oct. 29, packing hurricane-force winds and driving floodwaters that left more than 125 dead in 10 states. The storm inundated New York City’s subway system and ravaged shore communities from Atlantic City, N.J., to Bridgeport, Conn.

Christie joined Democratic Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Dannel Malloy of Connecticut in requesting almost $83 billion in federal money to rebuild the region.

In Friday’s vote, 193 Democrats were joined by 161 Republicans in passing the measure, while 67 Republicans opposed it. Among those voting against the measure was Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, last year’s Republican vice-presidential nominee.

Without action by Congress, the flood insurance program’s borrowing authority would be exhausted Jan. 7 and the fund wouldn’t be able to pay new damage claims, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky.

“The victims of Superstorm Sandy can wait no longer,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. “It’s been 11 weeks. Haven’t they suffered and waited long enough?”

Boehner said the House will vote Jan. 15 on two other measures that would raise the amount of aid to $60 billion.

Friday’s vote is “too little and too late,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.

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.”

Christie led the protest against Boehner’s Tuesday decision, calling the postponement “disappointing and disgusting.”

As political pressure increased, Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia met Wednesday 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 during the next year, Rogers said.

Boehner and Cantor showed “a full understanding of how passionately we feel this needs to be done,” Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., 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 Jan. 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 Dec. 28 on a 61-33 vote.

Republicans who opposed the Senate measure said much of the money won’t be spent before 2015. Lawmakers said 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 Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., 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 said 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.”

Bloomberg News' Brian Faler in Washington and Freeman Klopott in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.

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