Seth Wenig, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — More than two months after Superstorm Sandy struck, the House on Friday overwhelmingly approved $9.7 billion to pay flood insurance claims for the many home and business owners flooded out by the storm.
The 354-67 vote came days after Northeast Republicans erupted over House Speaker John Boehner's decision to delay a vote earlier in the week; all of the no votes were cast by Republicans. The Senate was expected to pass the bill later in the day.
"It's the right step," said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
The bill gives more borrowing authority to the National Flood Insurance Program to pay about 115,000 pending Sandy-related claims as well as about 5,000 claims unrelated to Sandy.
Northeast lawmakers say the money is urgently needed for victims of one of the worst storms ever to strike the region. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had warned that the National Flood Insurance Program would run out of money next week if Congress didn't provide additional borrowing authority to pay out claims. Congress created the FEMA-run program in 1968 because few private insurers cover flood damage.
The flood insurance measure is the first phase of a proposed Sandy aid package. Boehner agreed to Friday's vote after the controversy over delaying House action on a broader Sandy aid package. Under Boehner's new schedule, the House will vote Jan. 15 on an additional $51 billion in recovery money.
Senate action on that measure is expected the following week; financially strapped local governments are awaiting the money.
Northeast lawmakers say the money is urgently needed for storm victims awaiting claim checks from the late October storm, which was one of the worst ever to strike the Northeast, ravaging the coast from North Carolina to Maine, with the most severe flooding occurring in Atlantic City, N.J., New York City and Long Island and along the Connecticut coastline.
"People are waiting to be paid," said Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., whose district includes Atlantic City and many other coastal communities hard hit by the storm. "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."
As with past natural disasters, the Sandy aid proposals do not provide for offsetting spending cuts. Some tea party House Republicans and other fiscal conservatives favor cutting other federal programs to pay for some or all disaster costs.
The Club For Growth, a conservative group, on Friday urged lawmakers to oppose the bill, saying that Congress should only approve Sandy aid in installments to make sure the money is wisely spent and that any new Sandy aid should be offset with spending cuts elsewhere.
"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.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., a fiscal conservative who voted against the flood bill, said he was among those with concerns about the budget deficit. "We have to talk seriously about offsets," Huelskamp said. "We can't take $60 billion off budget, that's my problem with it."
The current debate over Sandy aid comes barely a year after Congress and the White House set up a new system to budget help for victims of hurricanes, tornadoes and floods before they occur. The new disaster funding scheme permits aid money to be added to the budget in line with amounts budgeted in recent years. The idea was to avoid battling and uncertainty over disaster funding.
Damage from Sandy, however, was so extensive that it's swamping the $12 billion disaster aid budget cap for the current year.
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