Washington – Congress approved a $9.7 billion aid bill for victims of Superstorm Sandy on Friday, amid a gusty debate between those who say Congress must ultimately approve a total of $60 billion to help communities rebuild and those who warn the aid package is festooned with unnecessary and costly items.
The Senate approved the first installment Friday afternoon after the House passed it earlier in the day. House Speaker John Boehner has pledged to bring up the other $51 billion in his chamber by mid-January, a commitment made after New York-area lawmakers revolted at his decision to put off the vote in the prior session.
Sandy left 120 dead and thousands homeless in the densely populated Northeast, and lawmakers from New York and New Jersey called Friday on Congress to swiftly approve the rest of the aid.
"To be a bride left at the altar once is bad enough. To be left at the altar twice would unconscionable," Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat, said Friday. "And so we need the House to move forward and pass the full $60 billion."
But House conservatives continued to object to more government spending without spending cuts to offset it. Sixty-seven of them voted Friday against the Sandy package, which replenishes the National Flood Insurance Program that was due to run out of money next week. And fiscal watchdog groups pointed out that plenty of items in the earlier Senate bill -- a version of which would presumably make up the $51 billion House bill -- were not necessarily specific to Sandy, or even the battered East Coast.
"Considering that as part of the fiscal cliff the nation is facing nearly $110 billion in across-the-board cuts in 2013 alone, it doesn't make sense to churn out a business-as-usual, wasteful $60 billion emergency supplemental stuffed with non-emergency funding," the group Taxpayers for Common Sense said in a written statement.
The Senate bill included a $4 million repair job at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
It also included $150 million for fishery disasters in a range of states -- including Alaska and Mississippi. Along those lines, the bill included $821 million for dredging projects nationwide in natural disaster areas, but not necessarily those affected by Sandy.
Some of this spending, it can be argued, is related to Sandy, but not the kind of direct emergency aid that some lawmakers make it out to be. For instance, nearly $45 million was included for work on NOAA's hurricane reconnaissance aircraft.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that only $9 billion of the $60.4 billion proposed on the Senate side would be spent over the next nine months. An additional $12 billion would be spent the following year. Republicans claimed the CBO's estimate undercuts the urgency of the bill.
The magnitude of the storm, though, could make the bill difficult to oppose. The late October storm ravaged the coast from North Carolina to Maine, with the worst flooding occurring in New York City and its suburbs, Atlantic City, N.J., and along the Connecticut coastline.
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 approved Friday 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.
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.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.