More than two months after Superstorm Sandy struck, the House  on Friday overwhelmingly approved $9.7 billion to pay flood insurance claims for  the many home and business owners flooded out by the storm.

The 354-67 vote came days after Northeast Republicans erupted  over House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to delay a vote earlier in the week;  all of the no votes were cast by Republicans. The Senate was expected to pass  the bill later in the day.

“It’s the right step,” said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen,  R-N.J., a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

The bill gives more borrowing authority to the National Flood  Insurance Program to pay about 115,000 pending Sandy-related claims as well as  about 5,000 claims unrelated to Sandy.

Northeast lawmakers say the money is urgently needed for  victims of one of the worst storms ever to strike the region. The Federal  Emergency Management Agency had warned that the National Flood Insurance Program  would run out of money next week if Congress didn’t provide additional borrowing  authority to pay out claims. Congress created the FEMA-run program in 1968  because few private insurers cover flood damage.

The flood insurance measure is the first phase of a proposed  Sandy aid package. Boehner agreed to Friday’s vote after the controversy over  delaying House action on a broader Sandy aid package. Under Boehner’s new  schedule, the House will vote Jan. 15 on an additional $51 billion in recovery  money.

Senate action on that measure is expected the following week;  financially strapped local governments are awaiting the money.

Northeast lawmakers say the money is urgently needed for  storm victims awaiting claim checks from the late October storm, which was one  of the worst ever to strike the Northeast, ravaging the coast from North  Carolina to Maine, with the most severe flooding occurring in Atlantic City,  N.J., New York City and Long Island and along the Connecticut coastline.

“People are waiting to be paid,” said Rep. Frank LoBiondo,  R-N.J., whose district includes Atlantic City and many other coastal communities  hard hit by the storm. “They’re sleeping in rented rooms on cots somewhere, and  they’re not happy. They want to get their lives back on track, and it’s cold  outside. They see no prospect of relief.”

As with past natural disasters, the Sandy aid proposals do  not provide for offsetting spending cuts. Some tea party House Republicans and  other fiscal conservatives favor cutting other federal programs to pay for some  or all disaster costs.

The Club For Growth, a conservative group, on Friday urged  lawmakers to oppose the bill, saying that Congress should only approve Sandy aid  in installments to make sure the money is wisely spent and that any new Sandy  aid should be offset with spending cuts elsewhere.

“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 group said in a  statement.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., a fiscal conservative who voted  against the flood bill, said he was among those with concerns about the budget  deficit. “We have to talk seriously about offsets,” Huelskamp said. “We can’t  take $60 billion off budget, that’s my problem with it.”

The current debate over Sandy aid comes barely a year after  Congress and the White House set up a new system to budget help for victims of  hurricanes, tornadoes and floods before they occur. The new disaster funding  scheme permits aid money to be added to the budget in line with amounts budgeted  in recent years. The idea was to avoid battling and uncertainty over disaster  funding.

Damage from Sandy, however, was so extensive that it’s  swamping the $12 billion disaster aid budget cap for the current year.

Boehner, of Ohio, had promised a House vote on Friday after  his decision to delay an action on a broader Sandy relief package provoked  outrage from Northeast Republicans, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie,  who said he’d lost trust in GOP leaders in Congress after being promised a vote  earlier this week.

New York Republican lawmakers who met with Boehner after the  uproar said he explained that after the contentious vote Tuesday to avoid major  tax increases and spending cuts called the “fiscal cliff,” he didn’t think it  was right to schedule the vote before the previous Congress ended on  Thursday.

About 140,000 Sandy-related flood insurance claims have been  filed, FEMA officials said, and there are about 115,000 pending claims. Many  flood victims have only received partial payments on their claims.

Sandy was the most costly natural disaster since Hurricane  Katrina in 2005 and was blamed for at least 120 deaths. Northeast lawmakers have  complained that it took just 10 days for Congress to approve about $50 billion  in aid for Katrina but that it hasn’t provided aid for Sandy relief in more than  two months.

The storm damaged or destroyed more than 72,000 homes and  businesses in New Jersey. In New York, 305,000 housing units were damaged or  destroyed and more than 265,000 businesses were affected.

“States and local communities need to know the money will be  there before they can give a green light to start rebuilding,” said  LoBiondo.

More than $2 billion in federal money has been spent so far  on relief efforts for 11 states and the District of Columbia struck by the  storm. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, New  Hampshire, Delaware, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and the District  of Columbia are receiving FEMA aid.



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