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House approves $50.5 billion in Sandy aid (+video)

Congress has voted over $50 billion in aid to victims of Superstorm Sandy. 192 Democrats joined 49 Republicans in support of the bill, while 179 Republicans and one Democrat voted against it.

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"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 Governors Andrew M. Cuomo (D) of New York,  Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey, and Dannel P. Malloy (D) of Connecticut. "The tradition of Congress being there and providing support for Americans during times of crisis, no matter where they live across this great country, lives on in today's vote in the House of Representatives."

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The governors said they "anticipate smooth passage when this package moves back to the Senate for final approval and for this long-awaited relief to finally make its way to our residents."

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.

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) of Ohio, and the leadership had little or no choice.

Rep. Boehner unexpectedly postponed the vote in the final hours of the expiring Congress as he struggled to calm conservatives who were 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," Gov. Christie said on the day after the delay was announced. Rep. Pete King (R) 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.

Across the capitol, majority Democrats indicated they would probably not seek changes.

"While the House bill is not quite as good as the Senate bill, it is certainly close enough," Sen. Charles Schumer of New York said. "We will be urging the Senate to speedily pass the House bill and send it to the president's desk."

Congress has already approved a $9.7 billion increase in a fund to pay federal flood insurance claims, much of it expected to benefit Sandy's victims.

The political veered into the personal at times during hours of debate.

In remarks on the House floor, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D) of 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. Mulvaney has said he received such a loan.

Mulvaney later told reporters the comparison was a poor one. He said that unlike funds in the Sandy legislation, the loan he received was approved within the budget, and not as an add-on that increased the deficit.

In the weeks since the storm hit, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has spent about $3.1 billion to construct shelters, restore of power, and meet other immediate needs after Sandy 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 disrupted more than 265,000 businesses, officials have said. In New Jersey, more than 346,000 households were destroyed or damaged, and more than 40,000 families still live outside of their homes, according to officials.

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