WASHINGTON – More than 10 weeks after Superstorm Sandy brutalized parts of the heavily populated Northeast, the House approved $50.7 billion in emergency relief for the victims Tuesday night as Republican leaders struggled to close out an episode that exposed painful party divisions inside Congress and out.
The vote was 241-180, and officials said the Senate was likely to accept the measure early next week and send it to President Obama for his signature. Democrats supported the aid in large numbers, while majority Republicans opposed it by a lopsided margin.
“We are not crying wolf here,” said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., one of a group of Northeastern lawmakers from both parties who sought House passage of legislation roughly in line with what the Obama administration and governors of the affected states have sought.
Democrats were more politically pointed as they brushed back Southern conservatives who sought either to reduce the measure or offset part of its cost through spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.
“I just plead with my colleagues not to have a double standard,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York. “Not to vote tornado relief to Alabama, to Louisiana, to Mississippi, Missouri, to – with Ike, Gustav, Katrina, Rita – but when it comes to the Northeast, with the second worst storm in the history of our country, to delay, delay, delay.”
On final passage, 192 Democrats joined 49 Republicans in support. Opposed were 179 Republicans and one Democrat.
Earlier, conservatives failed in an attempt to offset a part of the bill’s cost with across-the-board federal budget cuts. The vote was 258-162. Rep. Mark Mulvaney, R-S.C., arguing for the reduction, said he wasn’t trying to torpedo the aid package, only to pay for it. “Are there no savings, are there no reductions we can put in place this year so these folks can get their money?” he asked plaintively.
Critics said the proposed cuts would crimp Pentagon spending as well as domestic accounts and that the aid should be approved without reductions elsewhere.
“There are times when a disaster simply goes beyond our ability to budget. Hurricane Sandy is one of those times,” said Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Sandy roared through several states in late October. The storm has been blamed for 140 deaths and billions of dollars in residential and business property damage, much of it in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The storm led to power outages and interruptions to public transportation that made life miserable for millions, and the clamor for federal relief began almost immediately.
The House measure includes about $16 billion to repair transit systems in New York and New Jersey and a similar amount for housing and other needs in the affected area. An additional $5.4 billion would go to the Federal Emergency and Management Agency for disaster relief, and $2 billion is ticketed for restoration of highways damaged or destroyed in the storm.
The governors of the three states that were most directly affected by the storm praised the congressional action.
“We are grateful to those members of Congress who today pulled together in a unified, bipartisan coalition to assist millions of their fellow Americans in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut at their greatest time of need,” said a joint statement issued by New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Connecticut Gov. Dannel P.Malloy.
The Senate approved a $60 billion measure in the final days of the Congress that expired Jan. 3, and a House vote had been expected quickly.
It is highly unusual for a majority party to bring legislation to a vote that its own rank-and-file opposes, but in this case, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and the leadership had little or no choice. Boehner unexpectedly postponed the vote in the final hours of the expiring Congress as he struggled to calm conservatives unhappy that the House had just approved a separate measure raising tax rates on the wealthy. The delay drew a torrent of criticism.