Senate rejects GOP alternative to flood bill

The Senate rejected a Republican alternative to a flood insurance bill that delays rate increases.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) proposed an amendment that would have adjusted the phase-in of higher flood insurance rates, instead of delaying them altogether for four years, but his amendment failed on a 34-65 vote Thursday.

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“Some people’s premiums go up rather dramatically ... and that’s a huge problem and it needs to be addressed,” Toomey said ahead of the vote. “The problem is the Menendez bill does it in a wrong approach. ... It busts the budget.”

The Senate is considering the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act, S. 1926, which would delay a required increase in flood insurance premiums for some homes and allow homeowners to maintain existing flood insurance subsidies even after they are sold. Supporters of the bill say these changes are needed while the government studies whether homeowners can afford these higher costs.

In 2012, Congress passed flood insurance reforms, called Biggert-Waters, to ensure the bankrupt program regained stability, but some lawmakers have complained that the law was ill conceived because the new rates are too high for some people to stay in their homes. Biggert-Waters required people in flood zones pay the higher rate, which would be phased in over five years.

Toomey’s amendment would have kept the phase-in, but done it more gradually in order to help people adjust to the higher rates. He said the program was reformed for a reason and to scrap those gains didn’t make sense.

“The program is basically bankrupt and is only operating based on the grace of the American taxpayer,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said. “The program was not designed to be actuarially sound.”

After Hurricane Katrina, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) began operating at a $18 billion loss. The Biggert-Waters reform was designed to bring the program back into the black.

But Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) — the lead sponsor of the bill — said the flood insurance program would also fail if rates were so high that people no longer purchased insurance.

“Current law hikes rates so fast and so high that it will actually undermine solvency of the program,” Menendez said.

The Senate also voted 24-75 to reject an amendment from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) that would have allowed states to opt out of participation in the National Association of Registered Agents and Brokers. The assosciation aims to streamline the insurance licensing process by allowing agents and brokers to work in multiple states, but Coburn argued that “usurps” states’ rights.

And Sen. Dean Heller’s (R-Nev.) amendment, which would have allowed any private flood insurance policy accepted by a state to satisfy the mandatory purchase requirement, received a 49-50 vote.

With nine Republican co-sponsors, the legislation is expected to pass in the Senate at 2 p.m., but it’s unclear if Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will allow a vote in the House.