More than two months after Superstorm Sandy struck, the HouseÂ on Friday overwhelmingly approved $9.7 billion to pay flood insurance claims forÂ the many home and business owners flooded out by the storm.
The 354-67 vote came days after Northeast Republicans eruptedÂ over House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to delay a vote earlier in the week;Â all of the no votes were cast by Republicans. The Senate was expected to passÂ the bill later in the day.
“It’s the right step,” said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen,Â R-N.J., a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
The bill gives more borrowing authority to the National FloodÂ Insurance Program to pay about 115,000 pending Sandy-related claims as well asÂ about 5,000 claims unrelated to Sandy.
Northeast lawmakers say the money is urgently needed forÂ victims of one of the worst storms ever to strike the region. The FederalÂ Emergency Management Agency had warned that the National Flood Insurance ProgramÂ would run out of money next week if Congress didn’t provide additional borrowingÂ authority to pay out claims. Congress created the FEMA-run program in 1968Â because few private insurers cover flood damage.
The flood insurance measure is the first phase of a proposedÂ Sandy aid package. Boehner agreed to Friday’s vote after the controversy overÂ delaying House action on a broader Sandy aid package. Under Boehner’s newÂ schedule, the House will vote Jan. 15 on an additional $51 billion in recoveryÂ money.
Senate action on that measure is expected the following week;Â financially strapped local governments are awaiting the money.
Northeast lawmakers say the money is urgently needed forÂ storm victims awaiting claim checks from the late October storm, which was oneÂ of the worst ever to strike the Northeast, ravaging the coast from NorthÂ Carolina to Maine, with the most severe flooding occurring in Atlantic City,Â N.J., New York City and Long Island and along the Connecticut coastline.
“People are waiting to be paid,” said Rep. Frank LoBiondo,Â R-N.J., whose district includes Atlantic City and many other coastal communitiesÂ hard hit by the storm. “They’re sleeping in rented rooms on cots somewhere, andÂ they’re not happy. They want to get their lives back on track, and it’s coldÂ outside. They see no prospect of relief.”
As with past natural disasters, the Sandy aid proposals doÂ not provide for offsetting spending cuts. Some tea party House Republicans andÂ other fiscal conservatives favor cutting other federal programs to pay for someÂ or all disaster costs.
The Club For Growth, a conservative group, on Friday urgedÂ lawmakers to oppose the bill, saying that Congress should only approve Sandy aidÂ in installments to make sure the money is wisely spent and that any new SandyÂ aid should be offset with spending cuts elsewhere.
“Congress should not allow the federal government to beÂ involved in the flood insurance industry in the first place, let alone expandÂ the national flood insurance program’s authority,” the group said in aÂ statement.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., a fiscal conservative who votedÂ against the flood bill, said he was among those with concerns about the budgetÂ deficit. “We have to talk seriously about offsets,” Huelskamp said. “We can’tÂ take $60 billion off budget, that’s my problem with it.”
The current debate over Sandy aid comes barely a year afterÂ Congress and the White House set up a new system to budget help for victims ofÂ hurricanes, tornadoes and floods before they occur. The new disaster fundingÂ scheme permits aid money to be added to the budget in line with amounts budgetedÂ in recent years. The idea was to avoid battling and uncertainty over disasterÂ funding.
Damage from Sandy, however, was so extensive that it’sÂ swamping the $12 billion disaster aid budget cap for the current year.
Boehner, of Ohio, had promised a House vote on Friday afterÂ his decision to delay an action on a broader Sandy relief package provokedÂ outrage from Northeast Republicans, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie,Â who said he’d lost trust in GOP leaders in Congress after being promised a voteÂ earlier this week.
New York Republican lawmakers who met with Boehner after theÂ uproar said he explained that after the contentious vote Tuesday to avoid majorÂ tax increases and spending cuts called the “fiscal cliff,” he didn’t think itÂ was right to schedule the vote before the previous Congress ended onÂ Thursday.
About 140,000 Sandy-related flood insurance claims have beenÂ filed, FEMA officials said, and there are about 115,000 pending claims. ManyÂ flood victims have only received partial payments on their claims.
Sandy was the most costly natural disaster since HurricaneÂ Katrina in 2005 and was blamed for at least 120 deaths. Northeast lawmakers haveÂ complained that it took just 10 days for Congress to approve about $50 billionÂ in aid for Katrina but that it hasn’t provided aid for Sandy relief in more thanÂ two months.
The storm damaged or destroyed more than 72,000 homes andÂ businesses in New Jersey. In New York, 305,000 housing units were damaged orÂ destroyed and more than 265,000 businesses were affected.
“States and local communities need to know the money will beÂ there before they can give a green light to start rebuilding,” saidÂ LoBiondo.
More than $2 billion in federal money has been spent so farÂ on relief efforts for 11 states and the District of Columbia struck by theÂ storm. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, NewÂ Hampshire, Delaware, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and the DistrictÂ of Columbia are receiving FEMA aid.