Congress approves $9.7 billion in Sandy flood aid
Washington • The new Congress on Friday rushed out $9.7 billion to help pay flood insurance claims to 115,000 people and businesses afflicted by Superstorm Sandy, two days after New Jersey's governor and other Northeast Republicans upbraided Speaker John Boehner for killing a broader package for state and local governments in the storm's path.
The bill replenishes the National Flood Insurance Program that was due to run out of money next week with the pending Sandy-related claims as well as 5,000 unresolved claims from other floods.
"It's a small down payment on the larger aid we need," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. The legislation cleared the Senate by a voice vote following passage by the House, 354-67.
The government already has spent about $2 billion on the emergency response to the late October storm, one of the worst ever in the Northeast. It slammed the Atlantic coastline from North Carolina to Maine, with the worst damage occurring in New York City and its suburbs, New Jersey and Connecticut. The storm is blamed for 140 deaths.
Boehner has promised a vote Jan. 15 on a broader $51 billion package of aid, which would bring the total to the more than $60 billion requested by President Barack Obama. Senate leaders have promised a vote the following week.
The Senate passed a $60.4 billion bill a week ago but House Republicans, complaining that it was laden with pork projects unrelated to the storm, cut it by more than half. Boehner canceled a New Year's Day vote on it after nearly two-thirds of House Republicans voted against the fiscal cliff package of tax and spending increases.
The White House praised Friday's vote helping homeowners, renters and businesses, and urged Congress to act quickly on the remainder of Obama's request.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a joint statement also imploring Congress to move hastily on the rest of the money. "We are trusting Congress to act accordingly on January 15th," they said.
It was a more temperate response than was heard earlier in the week, when a livid Christie blistered House Republicans and Boehner himself for holding up the aid and other GOP figures from the region, as well as Democrats, cried "betrayal."
All of the "no" votes in the House were cast by Republicans, who said other government programs should have been cut to pay for the measure. As with past natural disasters, the Sandy aid proposals do not provide for offsetting spending cuts, meaning the aid comes at the cost of higher deficits.
The bill gives more authority to the National Flood Insurance Program to borrow money from the U.S. Treasury to pay claims. Premiums average about $625 per year and residential claims under the program average nearly $30,000.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., a fiscal conservative who voted against the flood bill, said he was among those with concerns it would add to huge budget deficits. "We have to talk seriously about offsets," Huelskamp said. "We can't take $60 billion off budget, that's my problem with it."
The Club For Growth, a conservative group, urged lawmakers to oppose the flood insurance bill. "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.
Among those with a pending flood insurance claim is Philip Rock in New Jersey. Rock has gotten $8,000 in flood insurance payments so far on a house he rents out in Toms River that was destroyed. He expects to receive much more from his $220,000 insurance policy but can't level the house until he knows the final payout.
"We don't want to demolish the house and have them say, 'We have to go around and take more pictures,'" Rock said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency had warned that the flood insurance program would run out of money next week if Congress didn't provide additional borrowing authority. Congress created the FEMA-run program in 1968 because few private insurers cover flood damage.
The $2 billion FEMA already has spent went to providing shelter, restoring power and meeting other immediate needs. Eleven states New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, New Hampshire, Delaware, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts plus the District of Columbia have shared that money.
FEMA's disaster relief fund still has about $4.3 billion, enough to pay for emergency response efforts into early spring, according to officials.
Sandy is the most costly natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Northeast lawmakers have complained that while it took Congress just 10 days to approve about $50 billion in Katrina aid, additional money for Sandy victims hasn't been forthcoming 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 disrupted, officials have said.
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