WASHINGTON - The leader of the U.S. House of Representatives agreed Wednesday to a vote this week on aid for Superstorm Sandy recovery, changing course after coming under intense pressure from angry fellow Republicans.
The speaker will schedule a vote Friday for $9 billion for the national flood insurance program and another on Jan. 15 for a remaining $51 billion in the package, Republican Rep. Peter King of New York said after emerging from a meeting with Boehner and Republican lawmakers from New York and New Jersey. The votes will be taken by the new Congress that will be sworn in Thursday.
Boehner's decision Tuesday night to cancel an expected vote on the storm aid before Congress ends its current session had provoked a firestorm of criticism from New York, New Jersey and adjacent states, including many lawmakers in his own party.
According to King, Boehner explained that after the contentious vote this week to avoid major tax increases and spending cuts called the "fiscal cliff," Boehner didn't think it was the right time to schedule the vote before the current Congress went out of business.
King left the session with Boehner without the anger that led him to lash out at the speaker Tuesday night.
"What's done is done. The end result will be New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will receive the funding they deserve. We made our position clear last night. That's in the past," King said.
Sandy was blamed for at least 120 deaths and battered coastline areas from North Carolina to Maine in October. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were the hardest hit states and suffered high winds, flooding and storm surges.
It was the most costly natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005 and one of the worst storms ever in the Northeast.
"Getting critical aid to the victims of Hurricane Sandy should be the first priority in the new Congress, and that was reaffirmed today with members of the New York and New Jersey delegations," Boehner said in a joint statement with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
King said Boehner assured the lawmakers present that the money from the two House votes would roughly equal the $60 billion package of aid that passed the Senate on Friday.
The House Appropriations Committee has drafted a smaller, $27 billion measure for immediate recovery needs and a second amendment for $33 billion to meet longer-term needs.
The $9 billion in flood insurance money to be voted on Friday was originally in the $27 billion measure. The votes on Jan. 15 will be for $18 billion in immediate assistance and $33 billion for longer-term projects, including projects to protect against future storms, King said.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, was among those sharply criticizing Boehner before the speaker changed course.
Christie said he was frustrated after Boehner withdrew the bill Tuesday night and tried to call him four times that night, but none of the calls were returned. Christie complained about the "toxic internal politics" of the House majority. Christie said he had worked hard to persuade House members to support Sandy aid, and was given assurances by Republican leaders that the bill would be voted on before Thursday.
"There is no reason for me at the moment to believe anything they tell me," Christie said before Boehner announced there would be votes this month.
Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, issued a joint statement, saying, "The fact that days continue to go by while people suffer, families are out of their homes, and men and women remain jobless and struggling during these harsh winter months is a dereliction of duty."
King was among an angry chorus of New York and New Jersey lawmakers from both parties who blasted Boehner. He had branded Boehner's initial decision to pull the bill a "cruel knife in the back" to New York and New Jersey.
In considering the Sandy aid package, the speaker was caught between conservative lawmakers who want to offset any increase in spending and Northeast and mid-Atlantic lawmakers determined to help their states recover more than two months after the storm hit.
The criticism of Boehner on the House floor was personal at times, and reflected in part the frustration among rank-and-file over the decision to press ahead with a vote on the "fiscal cliff deal. Boehner had been struggling with conservatives who complained that the economic package didn't include enough spending cuts.
Reps. Michael Grimm, a Republican, and Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, said in angry House floor remarks that while they did not agree on much, Boehner's decision amounted to a "betrayal" and a crushing blow to states battered by the storm.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, raised the political temperature even more. She said Boehner should explain his decision to families whose homes and businesses were destroyed, and added: "But I doubt he has the dignity nor the guts to do it."
President Barack Obama called for House Republicans to vote on the Sandy aid "without delay for our fellow Americans." The president said in a written statement that many people recovering from the storm need "immediate support with the bulk of winter still in front of us."
Associated Press writers Andrew Miga, Larry Margasak and Donna Cassata contributed to this story.
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