Brian Tumulty and Malia Rulon Herman, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The House passed a $50.7 billion disaster relief bill for victims of Hurricane Sandy on Tuesday, 78 days after the storm began pounding the Northeast.
Lawmakers voted 241-180 to approve the final bill, which includes $17 billion in emergency spending and another $33.7 billion in an amendment from Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey.
"People are hurting," Frelinghuysen told lawmakers on the House floor. "The suffering and damage are real and their needs are great."
The Oct. 29 storm killed more than 100 people in 10 states 41 in New York City alone and wiped out entire communities in coastal New York and New Jersey.
Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey said more than 22,000 homes were destroyed in his state, and people "desperately need help."
The bill approved Tuesday includes $16 billion in Community Development Block Grant money critical for rebuilding, $10.9 billion for public transportation projects, and $5.4 billion for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects. It also includes $11.5 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund.
Other successful amendments to the bill would require FEMA to identify the recipients of all disaster relief grants and would prohibit the federal government from using the aid to acquire more land.
Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey of New York said Northeast residents have waited far too long for Congress to act.
"Sandy devastated the Northeast and is one of the most costly natural disasters in our nation's history," she said. "It is imperative that we pass this package today."
The House bill, combined with the $9.7 billion the House and Senate approved Jan. 4 to help storm victims pay flood insurance claims, brings the total amount of House-passed Sandy aid to $60.4 billion.
That's the same amount the Senate approved last year before the 112th Congress disbanded.
House members from storm-battered states hope the Senate will act quickly to approve the aid when it returns from recess next week after President Barack Obama's inauguration.
The aid legislation faced opposition from House Republicans who wanted to offset it by cutting federal spending elsewhere. But a 258-member majority voted to reject a proposal by Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina to cut all federal discretionary programs by 1.6 percent. Mulvaney's measure got 162 votes.
Northeast lawmakers decried the effort, saying Congress has never required disaster aid to be offset by spending cuts.
"To my colleagues... who have decided that we need to change the rules of the game, shame on you," Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey said on the House floor. "Florida, good luck with no more hurricanes. California, congratulations, did you get rid of the (San) Andreas fault? The Mississippi is in a drought. You think you're not going to have a flood again? Who are you going to come to when you have these things?"
Republican Rep. Peter King of Long Island, N.Y., who had angrily attacked his own party for failing to approve Sandy aid in the last Congress, sounded a less combative note on Tuesday.
King noted that action on Sandy aid was delayed partly because governors in storm-battered states spent 30 days compiling detailed lists of aid needs, and the White House spent several weeks reviewing those lists.
"The time for recriminations is over,'' King said. "Let's stand together as Americans.''
Historically, congressional votes on federal disaster have not been partisan or even controversial. But Republican conservatives have balked at the size of the aid package.
The conservative Club for Growth had urged lawmakers to oppose the aid. There's no mechanism to pay for the aid money or make sure it's spent well, and the aid legislation is stuffed with unnecessary projects, the group said.
But Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said his state has benefited from federal disaster relief in the past particularly after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and failing to support the Sandy aid would by hypocritical.
"We have a national interest in getting this region back on its feet as quickly as possible, not only because it's the right thing to do, and it certainly is that, but because it's the smart thing to do,'' Cole said. "Over 13 percent of our citizens live in the four most affected states that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy, and collectively they produce over 17 percent of the wealth of this country. Having that area up, operational and prosperous is critical to the prosperity of the entire country.''
Gannett Washington Bureau