House passes $50 billion-plus Sandy aid package

Washington (CNN) - Lawmakers in the House of Representatives approved measures Tuesday to send more than $50 billion in aid to the Northeastern states ravaged by Superstorm Sandy last fall, though some conservatives in the House were pushing for spending cuts that would offset the cost of the recovery package.

The final bill passed 241-180, with 49 Republicans voting against it. The package now heads to the Senate.

In a joint statement, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy praised members of the House for pulling together in a “unified, bipartisan coalition” for the vote.

“We anticipate smooth passage when this package moves back to the Senate for final approval and for this long-awaited relief to finally make its way to our residents,” they said.

Votes on the large Sandy aid legislation came two weeks after the House approved a $9.7 billion package paying for flood insurance claims following delays over fiscal cliff bickering and consternation over dwindling federal funds.

Altogether, Tuesday’s House measures, combined with the flood money approved earlier this month, came close to equaling the $60.4 billion package the Senate passed at the end of last year.

But since this is a new Congress, the Senate will either have to take up the House package or restart with a new bill for the remaining $50 billion in recovery aid, which would further delay distributing money to the affected states.

The baseline measure up for a vote Tuesday provided roughly $17 billion for immediate recovery efforts, including funds directed to transit systems in New York and New Jersey, and to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican, introduced an amendment to the bill adding almost $34 billion to that figure. Fellow lawmakers from New Jersey and New York have said the combined $50 billion is necessary to provide needed relief for their states, where public transportation systems were damaged and many people’s homes were destroyed during Sandy.

Frelinghuysen’s amendment was voted upon separately by the House.

Some Republicans, concerned about the high price tag of the Sandy relief bill, introduced amendments calling for spending cuts that would offset the cost of the federal aid. In total, 13 amendments were approved by the House Rules Committee for consideration on the floor.

One of those voted upon – introduced by Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina – called for all of the Sandy aid funding to be completely counterbalanced by equivalent spending cuts. Previously, emergency aid packages, including several measures funding relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina that hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, have been passed in Congress without matching spending reductions.

The Mulvaney amendment, however, failed to pass the House Tuesday afternoon.

“We cannot continue to do what we’ve done in the past, that’s how we arrived where we are,” Mulvaney said earlier Tuesday on CNN’s “Starting Point.”

“We have disasters every single year,” he continued. “We don’t know where they’re going to be, but we spend disaster money every single year, something for which we could budget. I’m not against doing this but I think the days of just being able to say ‘Okay, let’s borrow money from China to do this and that’ have come and gone.”

Once the baseline bill and the various amendments were passed by the House, they were linked together for final passage.

Two GOP aides had said they expect a significant number of House Republicans to vote against the aid package, but believe that the underlying bill and Frelinghuysen amendment will pass with the help of House Democrats.

At the beginning of January, House Speaker John Boehner scrapped a vote on the large $60 billion Sandy aid package after not including any spending cuts in the deal avoiding the fiscal cliff. GOP leadership sources said Boehner was worried it would be a bad political move for him to allow a vote on the new federal spending after a long day of getting pummeled by his own House Republicans for not demanding enough spending cuts in the cliff bill.

But Boehner’s action drew angry blowback, including from Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who called to move “disappointing and disgusting to watch.” Other New Jersey and New York politicians expressed similar dismay at the delay in voting.

Those same politicians voiced support for the aid package being voted upon Tuesday, saying the funding was necessary for their states, where families remain displaced two and a half months after Sandy hit.

“This is not a Democratic issue, this is not a Republican issue,” Rep. Nita Lowey, D-New York, said. “I just hope that they pull their weight and join with the Democrats to pass this bill.”

“I’m counting on my Republicans, with encouragement from the governors, to get sufficient votes to join with the Democrats and pass this bill,” she added.

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters Tuesday he expected the package to pass, but criticized Republicans for delaying action on the bill, noting that in previous disasters Congress acted within 15 days of an emergency being declared.

“This will be one of the latest responses to a major disaster and Sandy was in many respects the most significant natural disasters to hit our country,” Hoyer said. “Right now we’re talking $60 billion – we did over a $100 billion for Katrina so we don’t know what the ultimate effect will be. Hopefully it doesn’t say this is going to be a pattern for us.”

Republican Rep. Leonard Lance of New Jersey told CNN Monday night that the New York and New Jersey delegations were fanning out to talk to House Republicans who have been critical of the Sandy aid package to urge them to support the measures and not require that the money be offset.

“We’re explaining the situation and we wish to be treated as other areas in the country have been treated in the past and we believe our case is excellent,” Lance told CNN.

Asked about the chances both pieces would pass, Lance said “I’m hopeful, but I don’t count chickens before the eggs are hatched.”

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, who helped put both House packages together, told reporters he would vote against amendments put forth by other Republicans to require the disaster assistance bill be paid for by cuts to other programs, saying “This is a true emergency. This is a true catastrophe and to offset the size that they’re talking about would devastate the regular agencies. It’s just too big to handle except through an emergency process.”

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