WASHINGTON - The Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved $50.5 billion in emergency relief for Superstorm Sandy victims Tuesday night, ending an episode that exposed painful party divisions more than 10 weeks after the storm brutalized parts of the heavily populated Northeast.
The vote was 241-180, and officials said the Senate was likely to accept the measure early next week and send it to President Barack Obama for his signature. Democrats supported the aid in large numbers, but there was substantial Republican backing, too, in the Republican-controlled House.
"We are not crying wolf here," said Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, one of a group of Northeastern lawmakers from both parties who sought House passage of legislation roughly in line with what the Obama administration and governors of the affected states have sought.
Sandy roared through several states in late October and has been blamed for 140 deaths and billions of dollars in residential and business property damage, much of it in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. It led to power outages and interruptions to public transportation that made life miserable for millions, and the clamour for federal relief began almost immediately.
Democrats were more politically pointed as they brushed back Southern conservatives who sought either to reduce the measure or offset part of its cost through spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.
"I just plead with my colleagues not to have a double standard," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York. "Not to vote tornado relief to Alabama, to Louisiana, to Mississippi, Missouri, to — with Ike, Gustav, Katrina, Rita — but when it comes to the Northeast, with the second-worst storm in the history of our country, to delay, delay, delay."
One key bipartisan vote came on a successful attempt by Republican Rep. Rodney Freylinghuysen of New Jersey to add $33.7 billion to an original allotment of $17 billion in aid.
Earlier, conservatives failed in an attempt to offset a part of the bill's cost with across-the-board federal budget cuts. The vote was 258-162.
Republican Rep. Mark Mulvaney, arguing for the reduction, said he wasn't trying to torpedo the aid package, only to pay for it.
Critics said the proposed spending cuts would crimp defence spending as well as domestic programs and said the storm aid should be approved without reductions elsewhere.
The emerging House measure includes about $16 billion to repair transit systems in New York and New Jersey and a similar amount for housing and other needs in the affected area. An additional $5.4 billion would go to the Federal Emergency and Management Agency for disaster relief, and $2 billion is ticketed for restoration of highways damaged or destroyed in the storm.
The Senate approved a $60 billion measure in the final days of the Congress that expired on Jan. 3, and a House vote had been expected quickly.
But House Speaker John Boehner unexpectedly postponed the vote in the final hours of the expiring Congress as he struggled to calm conservatives unhappy that the House had just approved a separate measure to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff — across-the-board tax hikes and spending cuts — by raising tax rates on the wealthy.
The delay drew a torrent of criticism, much of it from other Republicans.
"There's only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims, the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on the day after the delay was announced. Rep. Pete King of New York added that campaign donors in the Northeast who give to Republicans "should have their head examined."
Less than two weeks later, the leadership brought legislation to the floor under ground rules designed to satisfy as many Republicans as possible while retaining support from Democrats eager to approve as much in disaster aid as possible.
Across the capitol, majority Democrats indicated they would probably not seek changes.
"While the House bill is not quite as good as the Senate bill, it is certainly close enough," Sen. Charles Schumer of New York said. "We will be urging the Senate to speedily pass the House bill and send it to the president's desk."
Congress has already approved a $9.7 billion increase in a fund to pay federal flood insurance claims, much of it expected to benefit victims of Sandy.
In the weeks since the storm hit, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent about $3.1 billion for construction of shelters, restoration of power and other immediate needs after the late-October storm pounded the Atlantic Coast with hurricane-force winds and coastal flooding.
Officials say Sandy is the most costly natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The storm damaged or destroyed 305,000 housing units in New York, and more than 265,000 businesses were disrupted there, officials have said. In New Jersey, more than 346,000 households were destroyed or damaged, and more than 40,000 families remain living out of their homes, according to officials.
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