Reasons the House delayed approval of Sandy disaster relief

The House passed, 354 to 67, a $9.7 billion bill to top off the National Flood Insurance Program and help victims of superstorm Sandy. The timing has been delicate for the GOP-controlled House.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
A torn US flag flutters near a house destroyed by Superstorm Sandy at Staten Island in New York Friday, the same day that Congress approved $9.7 billion in initial relief for victims of Superstorm Sandy. But New York and New Jersey lawmakers seethed over delays in passing the rest of a $60.4 billion federal aid package.

Two months after superstorm Sandy swept across the Northeast, the House on Friday passed a $9.7 billion bill to top off the National Flood Insurance Program, which could have run out of funds to pay claims as early as next week.

Big federal programs are often controversial in the GOP-controlled House. But the timing of the Sandy relief package, coming just after a tough vote for Republicans on a measure to avert the “fiscal cliff,” made this vote nearly toxic.

In the end, the measure passed, 354 to 67.

Afterward, the Senate approved the measure by voice vote, and it now goes to the White House for signature.

Senators had approved an identical measure last month as part of a more comprehensive $60.4 billion aid package, but that measure died when the House failed to pass it by noon Thursday, when the 112th Congress ended.

House Speaker John Boehner has promised to schedule votes on the more comprehensive package by Jan. 15.

Mr. Boehner’s decision to not vote on the measure in the final hours of the last Congress had set off a firestorm among the New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut delegations, who on Wednesday described the speaker’s plan as a “betrayal.”

“I’m saying anyone from New York and New Jersey who contributes one penny to congressional Republicans is out of their minds,” Rep. Peter King (R) of New York told Fox News on Wednesday.

House Democrats continued that theme in floor debates on the bill on Friday. It’s indefensible, said Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D) of New York, that the Republican majority “could not get their act together” in time to pass the bill in the last Congress.

“[The storm victims] are human beings,” said Rep. Michael Grimm (R) of New York, who was elected in 2010 with tea party backing. “It’s up to us to get them back on their feet.”

Pressure from Northeast lawmakers came to bear in a different way as well. The New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut delegations are strongly Democratic, with 34 Democrats in the outgoing Congress, but there were also 13 Republicans in that group. Threats from GOP lawmakers to not back Boehner's reelection bid as speaker in elections Thursday in retaliation for postponing a vote on Sandy aid could have denied him election on the first ballot, putting the outcome in doubt.

Responding to the pressure, GOP House leaders quickly scheduled a Sandy relief vote on Friday.

The fiscal cliff saga had bearing on the delayed Sandy vote as well. In approving the Senate’s fiscal cliff bill, the House voted to raise income tax rates or the first time in 20 years. The bill also deferred billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts.

These cuts were the price that House Republicans exacted from the White House and Democrat-controlled Senate for raising the debt limit in 2011. Deferring them now was a bitter pill, and 151 Republicans refused to do it, even at the risk of taking the nation into another recession. The fiscal cliff bill passed 257 to 167, mainly supported by Democrats.

Only 85 Republicans supported the bill, with 151 opposed. For a GOP leadership that holds to the principle that no bill comes to the floor that does not have the support of “a majority of the majority,” the fiscal cliff bill was a glaring exception.

That’s why, late Tuesday, Boehner concluded that putting the $60.4 billion, comprehensive Sandy relief bill to a House vote was another divisive fight at the wrong time.

For many conservative Republicans, federal flood insurance is a taxpayer bailout that should be handled by the private sector. Moreover, unrelated spending that had been added to the Senate bill amounted to wasteful member “pork” projects.

All 67 votes opposing the measure were from Republicans, most of whom also opposed the fiscal cliff bill.

Sandy rendered “unspeakable damage,” and the claims in the National Flood Insurance Program “need to be paid and paid now,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R) of Texas, the new chair of the House Financial Services Committee.  

But overall, the National Flood Insurance Program is unsustainable, he added. The program is already $20 billion in debt, and adding $9.7 billion to an “insane national debt” ... “threatens our national security, our economic well-being, and our children’s future,” he said. “Emergency bills like this should not come to the floor without offsets to pay for them or structural reforms to ensure that taxpayer bailouts are never needed again,” he said during floor debate on the measure.

The Financial Services panel will overhaul and privatize the National Flood Insurance Program in the new Congress, he added.

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