WASHINGTON – The U.S. House pushed toward a vote to speed $50.7 billion in relief to victims of Superstorm Sandy on Tuesday as the Republican leadership struggled to surmount an episode that exposed painful party divisions inside Congress and out.
"We are not crying wolf here," said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., part of a group of Northeastern lawmakers from both parties seeking passage of legislation roughly in line with what the Obama administration and governors of the affected states 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."
Sandy roared through several states in late October and 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. It 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 Senate approved a $60 billion measure in the final days of the Congress that expired on Jan. 3, and a House vote had been expected quickly.
But House Speaker John 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, much of it from other Republicans.
"There's only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims, the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on the day after the delay was announced. Rep. Pete King of New York added that campaign donors in the Northeast who give to Republicans "should have their head examined."
Less than two weeks later, the leadership brought legislation to the floor under ground rules designed to satisfy as many Republicans as possible while retaining support from Democrats eager to approve as much in disaster aid as possible.
The measure itself provided for $17 billion in aid, although supporters of expanded aid were given a chance to add an additional $33.7 billion. The additional money, advanced by Rep. Rodney Freylinghuysen, R-N.J., was expected to pass with heavy Democratic support.
For their part, Republican conservatives were given a chance to offset part of the cost through across-the-board cuts elsewhere in the budget. The fate of that effort was unclear, since it would trim Pentagon accounts as well as those of domestic programs.
Congress has already approved a $9.7 billion increase in a fund to pay federal flood insurance claims, much of it expected to benefit victims of Sandy.
The political veered into the personal at times during hours of debate.
In remarks on the House floor, Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., said one South Carolina lawmaker who has criticized the measure "personally took a small business" disaster loan in the past. While he didn't mention any names, Rep. Mark Mulvaney, R-S.C., has said he received such a loan.
In the weeks since the storm hit, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent about $3.1 billion for construction of shelters, restoration of power and other immediate needs after the late-October storm pounded the Atlantic Coast with hurricane-force winds and coastal flooding.
Officials say Sandy is the most costly natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The storm damaged or destroyed 305,000 housing units in New York, and more than 265,000 businesses were disrupted there, officials have said. In New Jersey, more than 346,000 households were destroyed or damaged, and more than 40,000 families remain living out of their homes, according to officials.