WASHINGTON--Seventy-eight days after Superstorm Sandy battered the Northeast, the House on Tuesday approved $50.5 billion in disaster relief in a vote that exposed divisions within Republican ranks and foreshadowed the spending fights that lie ahead.
The measure, passed 241 to 180, could be approved by the Senate as early as next week.
Approval came after House Speaker John A. Boehner drew a tongue-lashing from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a fellow Republican, for delaying a vote on the emergency aid about two weeks ago, during the lame-duck session of Congress.
The bill, along with a $9.7-billion flood insurance measure recently signed by President Obama, would bring the total relief to about $60 billion.
Northeast officials welcomed the action, saying that many of their residents were still struggling to recover from the second-costliest storm in U.S. history after Hurricane Katrina.
"The tradition of Congress being there and providing support for Americans during times of crisis, no matter where they live across this great country, lives on in today’s vote in the House of Representatives,’’ they said.
Disaster relief typically draws strong bipartisan support. But with Washington awash in red ink, conservative lawmakers have pushed to offset new spending with cuts elsewhere in the budget. Deficit hawks also challenged whether spending for such things as shoring up defenses against future storms was an emergency, arguing that it should be considered during the normal budget process.
"A tragedy like Hurricane Sandy shouldn’t be used as an excuse for a grab bag of spending having nothing to do with emergency relief," protested Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay) "Republicans were supposed to change the way things are done around here. Clearly, we have not."
But Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R-N.J.) asked, "What does the misery index have to get to for our constituents" to receive aid?
He warned colleagues from disaster-prone regions to think hard before seeking to impose conditions on relief. "Florida, good luck with no more hurricanes. California, congratulations, did you get rid of the San Andreas fault? Mississippi…you think you’re not going to have a flood again?" LoBiondo said.
Northeast lawmakers from both parties were already fuming over the time it took the House to act.
"Never before has the House of Representatives taken so long to meet its obligations following a major disaster,’’ Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) complained.
"It is important that members who have been the benefactor of our good will in the past remember that generosity," Rep. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.) added, noting that Northeast taxpayers had helped pay for disaster aid to other areas of the country.
The measure provides money for such things as debris cleanup, disaster unemployment assistance, replenishing stocks at food banks and soup kitchens and low-interest loans to business and homeowners. Funds also would go for repairs of the transportation system, Head Start centers and National Park facilities, including the docks and walkway at Liberty Island, where the Statue of Liberty remains closed.
Sandy, a hurricane before the center of the storm made landfall Oct. 29 in New Jersey, killed more than 125 people in the United States.