By Malia Rulon Herman, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The Senate voted Monday to approve a $50.5 billion emergency aid bill for victims of Hurricane Sandy, three months after the storm began pounding the Northeast.
"I am so glad that we are finally coming to a moment where we can get relief to New Jersey families," Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey said.
The vote was 62-36. The bill now goes to President Obama for signing.
Monday's action brings the total amount of Sandy aid approved by Congress to $60.2 billion. That includes $9.7 billion the House and Senate approved on Jan. 4 to pay flood insurance claims related to the storm.
Senators defeated an amendment from Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah that would have offset the $50.5 billion in emergency aid by making across-the-board reductions in discretionary spending over nine years.
The measure received 35 votes, well short of the 60 it needed to pass.
Lawmakers from New Jersey and New York decried attempts to offset the aid money and took to the Senate floor to urge colleagues to approve the aid. Congress usually approves such funding by large bipartisan majorities within days or weeks of a disaster.
"These are not just dollars and cents, these are people," Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said. "Please, we have waited 91 long days. We can't wait any longer."
Menendez noted that only 118 days remain until Memorial Day, when the summertime tourist season traditionally begins on the Jersey Shore. He called the delays in Sandy aid "unprecedented."
Lawmakers approved $10.5 billion in emergency aid for victims of Hurricane Katrina just four days after that storm hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. And about a month after the storm made landfall, President George W. Bush signed legislation providing an additional $51.8 billion in relief.
Sandy 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. It also paralyzed mass transit systems and left tens of thousands of people homeless. Power was cut to more than 8 million homes.
Critics of the Hurricane Sandy disaster relief legislation say it's too expensive and includes provisions that aren't emergency-related, such as infrastructure projects to protect the Northeast coast from future storms.
"When you're running trillion-dollar deficits, I think it has to compete with other demands for infrastructure spending," Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said.
The legislation survived several delays on the way to Monday's vote.
The Senate had planned to vote on the bill last week but was sidetracked by a debate over filibuster rules.
On Dec. 28, the Senate voted to approve $60.4 billion in aid for Sandy victims, but that vote was nullified when the House failed to act before the 113th Congress took office on Jan. 3.
The $50.5 billion bill includes $16 billion in Community Development Block Grant money critical for rebuilding, $10.9 billion for public transportation projects, and $13 billion to safeguard the Northeast against another storm.
It also includes $11.5 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund, $780 million for Small Business Administration disaster loans, and $118 million for Amtrak.
Gannett Washington Bureau