Congress approves scaled-back Sandy aid bill

Congress approved a $9.7 billion Superstorm Sandy aid package on Friday following delays over fiscal cliff bickering, warnings of dwindling federal funds and swirling controversy over millions of dollars for unrelated projects.

The measure passed the House, 354-67. The Senate did so unanimously and without debate.

It was the first legislative action of the new Congress, which picked up the Sandy package after the previous session on Tuesday shelved a vote on a much larger assistance plan for storm victims, infuriating New York and New Jersey politicians.

Lawmakers from both houses will weigh in on $51 billion in additional Sandy aid on January 15. But that larger portion will likely face much closer scrutiny in a Congress anticipating more acrimony over spending and debt in coming months.

House leaders initially balked at immediate consideration of a big spending bill just after concluding the excruciating negotiations around the fiscal cliff.

hurricane-sandyHouse Speaker John Boehner preferred to wait a few days at least before holding a vote on a Sandy bill.

The original storm legislation also included what some Republicans saw as congressional “pork,” or money for unrelated pet projects. Budget hawks viewed the extra funding as wasteful in an era of record deficits.

Some lawmakers and taxpayer interest groups teased out $8 million for cars for the Homeland Security and Justice departments, $2 million for the Smithsonian to repair roofs, $150 million for fisheries, and $100 million for repair of Head Start facilities.

“It’s perceived to be free money. It goes around the budget caps that are ever tightening. Traditionally we haven’t offset disaster funding, but that doesn’t mean that some of these things should be in there,” said Steve Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog. “It’s honey for the flies.”

But New York Republican Rep. Peter King rejected criticisms of pet projects, or earmarks.

“Those reports were totally false,” King said on CNN.

The Senate Appropriations Committee said the broader aid package was designed to provide funding for any federally declared disaster last year, not just Hurricane Sandy.

Conservative groups, such as the Club for Growth, urged House members to oppose Friday’s scaled-back bill that included more than $9 billion to help the government pay flood insurance claims.

Congress faced strong pressure to boost the debt-ridden flood insurance program, which is the primary option for that type of coverage for U.S. homeowners and businesses. It has been under severe financial pressure for years from payouts related to big storms like Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency told Congress on Tuesday the flood insurance program was nearly out of money to compensate storm victims and required new authority to borrow more money to meet its obligations.

“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 Club for Growth wrote on its website.

Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling said flood insurance claims needed to be met for victims who paid their premiums.

“But madam speaker, here is the tragic reality — the national flood insurance program is broke. It is beyond broke. It is now taxpayer bailout broke,” he said on the House floor.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the storm-struck region, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, unleashed a firestorm of criticism at House Republicans for not addressing the measure as originally planned on Tuesday.

“New Jersey deserves better than the duplicity we saw on display,” Christie said, adding, that this is “why the American people hate Congress.”

Later, closed-door meetings between House Republicans from the Northeast and Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor got the aid package back on track with Friday’s vote on flood insurance and a promise to address the rest in coming weeks.

But Ellis said that tempers may flare anew when Congress debates the next portion, including the question of unrelated storm expenses.

“We have to do the scrutiny. It won’t be pretty. There’ll be some hurt feelings,” he said.
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