WASHINGTON (AP) — The first large aid package for victims of the deadly Superstorm Sandy started moving through the U.S. Congress on Friday, as the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved $9.7 billion to pay flood insurance claims. A Senate vote was expected later in the day.
The vote came more than two months after the storm left 120 dead and thousands homeless in the densely populated Northeast. Area officials and lawmakers had erupted earlier this week when House Speaker John Boehner decided to delay the vote.
All “no” votes in the 354-67 House count were cast by Republicans, who largely object to more government spending without spending cuts to offset it. As with past natural disasters, the Sandy aid proposals do not provide for offsetting spending cuts. The Republican-controlled House was caught up this week in larger negotiations over the fate of the country’s massive deficit, and a showdown on spending cuts is expected in the coming weeks and months.
Northeast lawmakers say the Sandy aid money is urgently needed for victims of one of the worst storms ever to strike the region and the most costly natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. The bill gives more borrowing authority to the National Flood Insurance Program to pay about 115,000 pending claims.
After the earlier House vote was delayed, New Jersey’s famously outspoken Republican governor, Chris Christie, erupted in response at his own party and joined New York’s Democratic governor in calling the move a “disgrace.” He and others said it took just 10 days for Congress to approve about $50 billion in aid for Katrina. That storm killed 1,800.
Sandy hit in late October, ripping apart the famed New Jersey shore and parts of the New York City area coastline.
Trying to keep calm, Boehner assured angry lawmakers that votes on the states’ entire request for more than $60 billion in aid would be held by the middle of the month.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp was one fiscal conservative who voted against the Sandy bill Friday. “We have to talk seriously about offsets,” he said. “We can’t take $60 billion off budget, that’s my problem with it.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has warned that the National Flood Insurance Program will run out of money next week if Congress doesn’t provide additional borrowing authority to pay out claims. Congress created the FEMA-run program in 1968 because few private insurers cover flood damage.
Northeast lawmakers say the money is urgently needed for storm victims awaiting claim checks.
“People are waiting to be paid,” said Rep. Frank LoBiondo, whose district includes the casino-filled Atlantic City and many other coastal communities. “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.”
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.
About 140,000 Sandy-related flood insurance claims have been filed, FEMA officials said, and most have yet to be closed out. Many flood victims have only received partial payments.
The House will vote Jan. 15 on an additional $51 billion in recovery money. Senate action on that measure is expected the following week.
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.
Associated Press writers Andrew Miga in Washington and Katie Zezima in Newark, New Jersey, contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.