House approves $50B for Sandy relief

The House approved a $50 billion Sandy relief bill Tuesday evening, after several hours of contentious debate in which scores of Republicans tried unsuccessfully to cut the size of the bill and offset a portion of it with spending cuts.

Members approved the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, H.R. 152, in a 241-180 vote. Among Republicans, 179 voted against it, and just 49 voted for it, a protest against a bill that many conservatives say is too big and provides funding for things other than immediate relief for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Republican and Democratic supporters of the bill argued throughout the day that everyone should support it, or run the risk of losing votes for future disaster bills that might help people in their districts.


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"Florida, good luck with no more hurricanes," Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) shouted to any member who might oppose the bill. "California, congratulations, did you get rid of the Andreas Fault? The Mississippi's in a drought. Do you think you're not going to have a flood again?

"Who are you going to come to when you have these things? We need this, we need it now. Do the right thing, as we have always done for you."

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a similar warning to members who oppose the bill.

"I hope that we can have an overwhelming bipartisan vote," she said. "I think that ideally… that would be the right thing to do.

"But as a practical matter, you just never know what mother nature may have in store for you in your region, and you would certainly want the embrace of the entire nation around you and your area, for your constituents, for your communities, for our country."

Scores of Republicans ignored these warnings and voted to either cut the bill or offset parts of it with cuts elsewhere. But there were not enough deficit hawks to overcome the many Republicans who favored the bill as it was presented, along with nearly every Democrat.

One of the bigger votes was on an amendment from Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), which added $33.7 billion to the bill. The House narrowly approved it in a 228-192 vote that saw 190 Republicans vote against it.

Many Republicans would likely have supported other amendments to cut back portions of the Frelinghuysen language that they said had little to do with funding the emergency response to Sandy. But the House Rules Committee did not make any of them in order.

"According to the Congressional Budget Office, more than 90 percent of this money won't even be spent this year," Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) said. "That's not emergency relief."

Supporters dismissed those arguments and said the Frelinghuysen language gets close to what governors of northeast states requested to Congress.

"It's time to lend that helping hand," Frelinghuysen said in support of his language. Among other things, his amendment added $19.8 billion to help with the repair of roads and bridges, $6.5 billion for the Department of Homeland Security's disaster relief fund, and $4 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers.

The other big vote was on whether to offset the $17 billion baseline bill with a 1.63 percent cut to discretionary government programs. The sponsor of this language, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), argued that while prior disaster bills did not have offsetting spending cuts, Congress is now operating in the context of a $16 trillion debt.

"The time has come and gone in this nation where we can walk in here one day and spend nine or 17 or 60 billion dollars and not think about who's paying for it," Mulvaney said.

But Mulvaney was rebuffed by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who opposed the idea of subjecting discretionary programs to an across-the-board cut. That left Mulvaney asking all members why Congress can't find cuts to fund important disaster recovery aid.

"Just tell me what you are willing to do without," said Mulvaney. "Are we willing and able to do without anything so that these people can get this money this year?"

Mulvaney's amendment failed 162-258, as Republicans split on the proposal 157-71. The vote split GOP leaders, as Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) voted for it, while Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) voted against it.

The base bill provides $5.4 billion to fund FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund, another $5.4 billion to help transit authorities in New York and New Jersey, $3.9 billion for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help with rebuilding, and another $1.45 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers.

The House did approve one amendment removing $150 million from the bill that would have gone toward Regional Ocean Partnership grants.

House passage of the final package is a win for the Obama administration, which proposed a $60 billion bill to help people recovery from Sandy. While Republicans rejected several parts of a Senate-passed bill, the White House will now likely reach its goal of getting the full $60 billion.

In addition to the $50.7 billion bill, the House has also approved a bill allowing the National Flood Insurance Program to go deeper into debt by $9.7 billion in order to handle claims related to the storm.

The Senate will have a chance to consider the House-passed bill when it returns next week.

The House bill will also include provisions that reform U.S. disaster aid programs to allow for the faster disbursement of disaster aid. That bill was approved unanimously on Monday, and will be added to the bottom of the $50.7 bill.