WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives approved $51 billion in federal aid for Superstorm Sandy victims Tuesday after hours of debate and weeks of pressure from Northeast lawmakers.
The bill was passed 241-180, relying on strong Democratic support and 45 Republican votes. All but one of the nay votes came from Republicans.
“What a great feeling — particularly when you come out of a Congress that didn’t do a damn thing,” Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., said after the vote. “This is something positive, something very tangible. It’s not esoteric for any stretch and I’m very happy.”
The Senate is expected to vote on the House relief bill soon, Democratic staffers said Tuesday.
Superstorm Sandy ravaged the Northeast in October, killing more than 100 Americans and gutting the New York and New Jersey coastlines.
In December, the Obama administration requested $60 billion for Sandy relief and the Senate approved a package with bipartisan support. The bill passed 61-33, but House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, abruptly adjourned the House on New Year’s Day without a vote on that relief bill. The proposal died when the legislative session ended Jan 3 and the new Congress was sworn in.
The speaker’s unexpected move infuriated politicians from both sides of the aisle.
“I was absolutely stunned and almost really ashamed that we would leave a group of Americans — Republicans, Democrats and Independents — in a lurch like this,” Rep. Donald Payne Jr., D-N.J., said shortly before the Tuesday vote.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, repeatedly attacked Boehner in the days after the speaker pulled the bill. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., urged his constituents to stop donating to the GOP during a Fox News appearance.
Hoping to quash the uproar, Boehner indicated he would make Sandy aid a top priority for the new Congress. Federal relief, he said, would come in two proposals.
The House overwhelmingly approved the first package of $9 billion for emergency flood insurance assistance. The Senate followed suit and Obama signed the bill.
That was the easy part.
House Republicans then proposed the second relief package, worth $17 billion. But an amendment from Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., tacked on an additional $33 billion to bring the aid package more in line with Obama’s original request.
The amendment passed 228-192, surviving a series of challenges by budget hawks and tea partiers alike.
Critics claimed the amendment was full of pork projects unrelated to disaster recovery, like $150 million to rebuild fisheries in Alaska and $2 million to repair a museum in Washington, D.C.
A coalition of powerful conservative groups also opposed the legislation, including Taxpayers for Common Sense, Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity. The groups lobbied lawmakers to vote against the $33 billion Frelinghuysen amendment.
“We found it shameful that lawmakers would take this opportunity to go and fund their special interests,” Americans for Prosperity spokesman Levi Russell said on Monday. “We’re in favor of helping those in need but not using their suffering to promote all kinds of wasteful spending.”
Lawmakers rejected a controversial amendment containing across-the-board spending cuts that would have quashed hopes for Senate passage. The proposal, from Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., would have offset all spending in the bill with a 1.6 percent cut to all discretionary spending programs, including defense programs.
House Democrats balked at the so-called poison pill from the tea party congressman, one calling it a “totally stupid amendment” before voting against it on Tuesday. The House rejected the amendment 258-162.
Christie, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy thanked House lawmakers in a joint statement shortly after the aid package was approved late Tuesday.
“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.