First piece of Sandy aid OK'd by House, Senate

A pile of Hurricane Sandy debris piled high in the parking lot of The Links at Brigantine Beach golf course Weds., Nov. 14, 2012. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )

WASHINGTON -- The House and Senate easily approved $9.7 billion in aid for Sandy victims Friday morning, but bigger challenges await the remaining $51 billion the remaining recovery funding sought by New Jersey and New York.

The vote in the House was 354-67, with 9 members of Congress not voting. All of the no votes came from the GOP. Every member from the Philadelphia area and New Jersey voted yes, except Allyson Schwartz, who did not vote. The Senate voted by voice later in the afternoon, sending the bill to President Obama, who has supported aid for Sandy.

The vote replenishes the national flood insurance program, ensuring that it can pay people who have federal insurance, but does not address the vast majority of aid sought for Sandy relief.

U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a Republican whose district includes Atlantic City, said the money OK'd today is "critical" but "we all know the really big stuff is Jan. 15 and that’s what we have to completely focus on."

The House is set to vote that day on the rest of the money sought by states hit hard by Sandy. It's not clear, though, when the Senate will take up the rest of the funding, leaving questions around how quickly Sandy aid will be approved, and what the final package will look like.

"We consider getting aid to the victims of Sandy a superlative priority, but we need to know more about the contents of the bill before deciding on a path forward," said a Senate Democratic leadership aide.

The funding approved today will pay for flood insurance, but the rest is needed for rebuilding roads and bridges, helping businesses and homeowners and projects to prevent damage to future storms.

Conservative critics have pointed to portions of the bill that they say has nothing to do with Sandy and represent "pork." For example, they point to $150 million the Senate approved to help fisheries in Alaska.

But LoBiondo said those examples were stripped from the House bill.

The idea that give-aways to other states are included "is inaccurate and false," he said.

Still, he anticipates a fight from fellow Republicans who have staunchly opposed new spending. He noted that some even went against today's measure.

Republicans have largely agreed to go ahead with another chunk of funding Jan. 15, but in two pieces. A roughly $17 billion piece has wide support, but $33 billion for long-term projects faces opposition.

"That's the portion I think we might have some trouble with," LoBiondo said.

Democrats were pleased that the bill passed, but continued to criticize Republicans for canceling a vote earlier this week that would have given final approval to the entire $60 billion package. They said this vote came too late, and now creates new hurdles in the House and Senate.

The Senate had approved the $60 billion aid package, but with a new session of Congress beginning Thursday all bills have to start over. The House, meanwhile, will have to have two votes to approve the remaining $51 billion.

"It would have been passed, we had the votes. It would have been on the President's desk," said. U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, a shore-area Democrat. "Now we have nother delay."

He added that the House has "three separate votes on this package that could have been passed and signed into law over the last couple days."