Rejecting conservative opposition, Congress approved a $9.7 billion aid package for victims of super storm Sandy on Friday after a near mutiny by East Coast Republicans against House Speaker John Boehner.
The measure to pay flood insurance about 115,000 pending claims was approved in the House by 354 to 67. All the no votes were Republican. The Senate passed it later by unanimous agreement.
The aid amounts to just a down payment on a multibillion-dollar aid commitment, boosting prospects for relief for the many home and business owners devastated by the storm.
"It's the right step," said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that the National Flood Insurance Program will 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. 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 that money.
"Today's action by the House was a necessary and critical first step towards delivering aid to the people of New Jersey and New York," Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York said in a joint statement. "While we are pleased with this progress, today was just a down payment and it is now time to go even further and pass the final and more complete, clean disaster aid bill."
Northeast lawmakers said the money is urgently needed for storm victims awaiting claim checks from the Oct. 29 storm. Sandy was one of the worst storms to strike the Northeast, ravaging the coast from North Carolina to Maine, with the most severe flooding occurring along the coasts of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.
"People are waiting to be paid," said Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., whose district includes Atlantic City and many other hard-hit coastal communities. "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."
The conservative Club For Growth urged lawmakers to oppose the bill, saying 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.
Boehner had promised a House vote on Friday after his decision to delay an action on a broader Sandy relief package provoked outrage from Northeast Republicans, including Christie, who said he had lost trust in GOP leaders in Congress after being promised a vote earlier this week.
About 140,000 Sandy-related flood insurance claims have been filed, FEMA officials said, and there are about 115,000 pending claims. Many flood victims have only received partial payments on their claims.
Philip Rock has received $8,000 in flood insurance payments so far but said he is awaiting a statement on the final amount, which he expects to be much more. A house he owns in Toms River, N.J., had a $220,000 flood insurance policy. The house, which he rents out, was destroyed, and he needs to know the final payout before he can demolish it.
The house is a "total loss," Rock said. "We don't want to demolish the house and have them say, `We have to go around and take more pictures."'
New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were the states hardest hit by the storm in terms of damage from high winds, flooding and storm surges. The storm damaged or destroyed more than 72,000 homes and businesses in New Jersey. In New York, 305,000 housing units were damaged or destroyed and more than 265,000 businesses were affected.
Speaking of the legislation, Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., whose district includes Staten Island, said, "This funding will give the city and state the much-needed resources to rebuild our damaged infrastructure and provide further aid to individuals and small businesses struggling to pick up the pieces of their lives."
Sandy was the costliest natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and was blamed for at least 120 deaths. Northeast lawmakers have complained that it took just 10 days for Congress to approve about $50 billion in aid for Katrina but that it hasn't provided aid for Sandy relief in more than two months.
"States and local communities need to know the money will be there before they can give a green light to start rebuilding," said LoBiondo.
More than $2 billion in federal money has been spent so far on relief efforts for 11 states and the District of Columbia struck by the storm. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, New Hampshire, Delaware, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia are receiving FEMA aid.