House approves $9.7 billion in Sandy relief

The House passed legislation on Friday that allows the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to take on $9.7 billion in new debt to help meet claims related to Hurricane Sandy.

Members easily passed the bill in a 354-67 vote — the only "no" votes came from Republicans. A two-thirds majority was needed for passage. 

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"No" votes included Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House Budget Committee chairman and former vice presidential candidate, who said after the vote that Washington should not be creating new debt. 

"This legislation proposes to increase the program's borrowing authority by $9.7 billion," he said. "It would be irresponsible to raise an insolvent program's debt ceiling without making the necessary reforms." 

Earlier in the day, the Club for Growth said the government should not be involved in the flood insurance industry at all, and warned conservatives to vote against the bill.

The Senate is expected to approve the measure by voice vote on Friday, sending it to President Obama.

The bill, from Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), is the first of two steps that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he would take to deal with Sandy. In addition to today's vote, Boehner has promised a Jan. 15 vote on a bill that could provide up to $51 billion in additional aid.

Earlier in the week, members from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut blasted Boehner on the House floor for delaying a vote on Sandy relief. Two Republicans, Reps. Pete King (N.Y.) and Michael Grimm (N.Y.), even hinted they might not vote for Boehner as Speaker of the House.

Boehner, who as Speaker rarely casts votes — though he did vote for this week's fiscal cliff deal — did not vote on the measure.

While Boehner responded by promising two votes, some of the anger from earlier in the week could be heard in Friday's debate. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said that while he welcomes passage of the bill, the House is still moving too slowly.

"When taken as a whole, the House's actions today, I believe, still are slow," he said. "Sixty-seven or 68 days have gone by."

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) said it was "deplorable" that Boehner did not allow a vote on a bill earlier in the week, and Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) called it "a shame" and "an embarrassment."

King did not criticize GOP leaders directly in his comments Friday morning. But he did repeat his argument that people from the Northeast should not be denied quick relief.

"What we're asking for is to be treated the same as victims in all other storms, all other national disasters have been treated," he said. Earlier in the week, King said Boehner's decision to pull the bill reflects a "dismissive attitude" that many in Congress have toward people in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

While some members decried the delay, Garrett said the NFIP has been able to fund all flood insurance claims so far, and that the bill would simply allow that to continue.

The bill — the first passed by the House in the 113th Congress — would temporarily increase NFIP's borrowing authority from $20.725 billion to $30.425 billion. It does not, however, say how long the temporary increase will last, or what mechanisms might be used to reduce NFIP's borrowing limit later.

The NFIP is the only provider of flood insurance in the country, and is very close to bumping up its $20.725 billion debt limit in light of claims from Hurricane Sandy.

The bill is certain to restart a debate on how to deal with NFIP's indebtedness in the new Congress. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), the new chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said the NFIP's debt shows it's not sustainable, and that he would explore ways to reform the program.

"I wish to inform all members in this Congress, our committee will take up legislation to transition to a private, innovative, competitive, sustainable flood insurance market, one that serves the needs of all of our countrymen, but ends the unsustainable taxpayer bailouts once and for all," he said.

Hensarling said he regrets that there was not enough time to identify spending offsets to pay for the $9.7 billion increase in new debt the NFIP will be able to incur.

"Emergency bills like this should not come to the floor without offsets to pay for it, or structural reforms to ensure that taxpayer bailouts are never needed again," he said. "Regrettably, less than 24 hours into a new Congress, there is simply not time for this."

Last summer, the House easily passed a bill that would have led to higher insurance premiums, and would have phased out taxpayer-subsidized rates. That change would have raised an estimated $4.2 billion, and given the program a start at paying down its debt.

This bill passed 406-22, and most of the "no" votes came from Republicans. A few dozen Republican members favored an amendment to terminate the program altogether and allow private companies to fill the void.

The next step will be considering the rest of the Senate-passed bill, totaling $51 billion in additional aid. Some members called on the House and Senate to pre-negotiate a deal so that bill can quickly be approved on Jan. 15.

During Friday's debate, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said he agreed, and that a House-Senate negotiation should focus on removing billions of dollars' worth of unnecessary spending in the Senate's bill.

"My hope is that we will see on January 15th a negotiated, clean bill that only deals with the men and women and families on the Eastern Seaboard that need to be taken care of," he said.

House Republicans have criticized the $60 billion Senate-passed bill for several weeks, and proposed a $27 billion alternative.