WASHINGTON - Congress sent a $50.5 billion emergency relief measure for Superstorm Sandy victims to President Barack Obama for his signature Monday, three months after the storm ravaged coastal areas in much of the Northeast.
Despite opposition from conservatives concerned about adding billions of dollars more to the nation's debt, the Senate cleared the long-delayed bill, 62-36, after House Republicans had stripped it earlier this month of spending unrelated to disasters. All 36 votes against the bill were from Republican senators.
The House passed the bill two weeks ago. The long debate over Sandy aid has exposed deep divisions within the Republican Party — still reeling from losses in the November election — over how far to go in their fight to cut U.S. spending.
Lawmakers say the money is urgently needed to start rebuilding homes, businesses, public transportation facilities and other infrastructure damaged by the Oct. 29 storm, one of the worst to strike the Northeast. Sandy is blamed for more than 130 deaths in the U.S. and tens of billions of dollars in property damages, particularly in New York and New Jersey.
"I commend Congress for giving families and businesses the help they deserve, and I will sign this bill into law as soon as it hits my desk," Obama said in a statement late Monday.
The biggest chunk of money is $16 billion for Housing and Urban Development Department community development block grants. Of that, about $12.1 billion will be shared among Sandy victims as well as those from other federally declared disasters in 2011-2013. The remaining $3.9 billion is solely for Sandy-related projects.
More than $11 billion will go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief aid fund for shelter, restoring power and other storm-interrupted utility services and meeting other immediate needs arising from Sandy and other disasters. Another $10 billion is devoted to repairing New York and New Jersey transit systems and making them more resistant to future storms.
Earlier in January, Congress approved and Obama signed a $9.7 billion bill to replenish the National Flood Insurance Program, which has received well over 100,000 flood insurance claims from businesses, homeowners and renters related to Sandy. Added to the new, $50.5 billion package, the total is roughly in line with the $60.4 billion that Obama requested in December.
Sandy damaged or destroyed 305,000 housing units in New York and more than 265,000 businesses were disrupted there, according to officials. In New Jersey, more than 346,000 households were destroyed or damaged.
The aid package was greased for passage before the last Congress adjourned and the new legislature came in on Jan. 3. But House Speaker John Boehner refused to bring it to the floor after two-thirds of House Republicans voted against a "fiscal cliff" deficit-reduction deal raising taxes on the wealthy while deferring spending cuts to have been shared between defence and domestic programs.
The ruckus triggered angry bickering within Republican ranks. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a prominent Republican, angrily blamed Boehner and the other House Republicans "for the continued suffering of these innocent victims."
Top House Republicans responded by bringing new Sandy aid legislation to the floor under ground rules designed to win over as many Republicans as possible while retaining support from Democrats eager to approve as much in disaster aid as possible.
Republican leaders cut spending in the Senate bill unrelated to disasters. One was to transfer $1 billion for training Iraqi policemen to instead be used on bolstering security at U.S. diplomatic missions. The shift in money followed a Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed.
As with past natural disasters, the Sandy aid bill is not offset with spending cuts, meaning the aid adds to the deficit.
Associated Press writers Andrew Miga and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2013