President Obama Wednesday urged the House of Representatives to pass a disaster relief bill for Northeastern states hit by hurricane Sandy before the current congressional term expires at noon on Thursday.
His appeal added to a bipartisan chorus of calls for immediate action, including from Republican members of Congress and top officials from the affected states who denounced a decision late Tuesday by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio to pull the relief package from consideration.
But Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, among the more outspoken critics of the congressional inaction, announced Wednesday afternoon that he had been promised by Speaker Boehner that the House would in fact take up the disaster relief measures in the new session of Congress, beginning with a vote on Friday on $9 billion in flood insurance. Congressman King said Boehner, in a meeting with lawmakers from the Northeastern states, also pledged to schedule another vote on Jan. 15 for a further $51 billion in relief.
Mr. Obama, who left Washington Tuesday evening to join his family vacationing in Hawaii, issued a statement Wednesday saying, “When tragedy strikes, Americans come together to support those in need. I urge Republicans in the House of Representatives to do the same, bring this important request to a vote today, and pass it without delay for our fellow Americans.”
Last week the Senate passed a $60.4 billion disaster assistance measure to help those affected by the late October superstorm, which killed 120 people and damaged or destroyed 651,000 homes in New York and New Jersey. The House had been expected to debate a similar measure on Wednesday before Boehner unexpectedly pulled the bill back Tuesday evening.
Boehner's decision surprised and angered politicians of both parties from the affected states.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, issued a joint statement Wednesday calling the House’s failure to act “inexcusable.”
“The fact that days continue to go by while people suffer, families are out of their homes, and men and women remain jobless and struggling during these harsh winter months is a dereliction of duty,” the governors said.
Obama spoke Wednesday with Governor Christie about the Sandy supplemental request pending in the House "and the importance of its passage," an administration official said. The White House also said the president’s team has been in close contact with Governor Cuomo’s staff.
King initially called the decision not to act on the disaster assistance a “cruel knife in the back” and urged donors not to give money to Republicans while they are ignoring the need for storm assistance.
Responding to the criticism from within his own party, a spokesman for Boehner said “the speaker is committed to getting this bill passed this month.” He issued the statement before Boehner's meeting with Republicans from the affected states.
While the speaker did not say why he delayed action, one theory is that it would be politically difficult for members of his caucus to pass a large spending measure for storm relief immediately after some of them had angered their constituents by voting Tuesday evening for a measure that would increase the tax rates paid by the wealthiest Americans. Boehner also had to find a path between party members from New York and New Jersey who want generous assistance for their communities and other members of the caucus who seek to have storm aid offset by spending cuts elsewhere.
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi’s office issued a document titled “Dereliction of Duty for Victims of Hurricane Sandy.” It noted that 10 days after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, Congress passed $62 billion in aid, while it has been 65 days since Sandy hit New York and New Jersey and Congress has not taken action.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.