House approves $51 billion of Sandy aid

In Beach Haven on Long Beach Island, Hurricane Sandy's effects are evident. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer

WASHINGTON – A $51 billion aid bill to help families, businesses and communities recover and rebuild after superstorm Sandy won approval in the House Tuesday, clearing a hurdle that tripped up the measure just two weeks earlier.

The plan, part of a $60 billion relief package sought by officials from New Jersey and New York, could come up as soon as Tuesday in the Senate, according to a Democratic aide.

Lawmakers from New Jersey and New York said the full package was need to help families whose homes were torn apart, businesses that were flooded and to rebuild critical infrastructure -- along with adding new protections to blunt the damage of future storms.

“We need this money, we need it now,” said U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.)

The final bill was approved by a 241 to 180 vote, moving through the House over the objections of the chamber’s vocal and influential opponents of new government spending.

Many House Republicans worried about adding to the national deficit and and questioned whether much of the spending is truly for an emergency. The GOP largely supported a scaled-back $17 billion relief plan, but mostly opposed the larger package.

“We should be willing as a body to come together and say, look, there are things that we do not need this year, things we can do without this year, so that people (who need it) can have it,” said U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R., S.C.). “The time has come and gone in this nation when we can walk in here and spend 9 or 17 or 60 billion and not think about how we’re going to pay for it.”

House Republicans voted 179 to 49 against the larger plan -- although every Republican from the Philadelphia area voted in favor of the proposal.

Democrats voted for the full bill by 192-1.

The House moved closer Tuesday to approving a package to help relief and recovery from superstorm Sandy as a critical amendment that could have slowed its passage was defeated.

Several votes on smaller amendments were pending as of 5:20 p.m., but only two significant hurdles remained in the House: a vote to bring the aid bill up to the $51 billion sought by officials from New Jersey and New York, and then final passage. (Of course, it would still have to clear the Senate after that).

"We need this money, and we need it now," U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, said on the House floor as debate began Tuesday morning.

The funding will come through two bills - a $17 billion proposal that won widespread support today, passing the House by a 327-91 vote - and a $33 billion amendment backed by New Jersey and New York lawmakers.

The larger piece of the bill, which is for more long-term projects and includes nearly $11 billion for public transportation, is supported by most Democrats, but faces opposition from fiscally conservative Republicans who worry about how it will add to the deficit and argue that much of the added money isn't truly for emergency needs.

Votes on the $33 billion amendment, and then final passage, are expected early this evening.

The plan dodged one potential obstacle with the defeat of a measure sponsored by South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney, which would have required offsetting budget cuts to help pay for the $17 billion piece of aid. The cuts would have been 1.6 percent to all discretionary programs.

Mulvaney said the plan would have ensured that the government had to prioritize emergency relief and make decisions about finding savings elsewhere, avoiding new deficit spending and debt.

"We should be willing as a body to come together and say, look, there are things that we do not need this year, things we can do without this year, so that people (who need it) can have it," Mulvaney said.

But northeastern lawmakers said that plan could have doomed the bill, and many Republicans opposed it out of concern that the cuts would harm the defense budget.

In effect, New Jersey lawmakers said, the plan would have pitted Sandy relief funds against other programs.

In the end, the amendment won 157 Republican votes but was defeated 162-258.

The $17 billion piece of aid then won broad support, passing 327-91. All of the "no" votes came from Republicans, including Pennsylvanians Scott Perry and Keith Rothfus.

For the Sandy relief bill, today is the day.

After much teeth gnashing and John Boehner bashing, today the House is expected to vote on roughly $51 billion in aid for New Jersey and New York, attempting to get the hefty package through a chamber that is highly skeptical of new, unpaid-for spending.

Democrats and Republicans from the affected states have said the relief bill is essential to provide certainty to homeowners and businesses trying to plan their futures after the October storm devastated large swaths of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

But fiscal hawks have said that only a piece of the bill represents true “emergency” needs, and the rest should be offset with other spending cuts or funded through the normal appropriations process. House Republicans from outside the northeast are pushing for a much smaller relief bill.

“Congress shouldn't keep passing massive "emergency" relief bills that aren't paid for, have little oversight, and are stuffed with pork,” the anti-tax Club for Growth said this week, urging lawmakers to vote against the relief plan.

Northeast officials counter that people need to know that long-term funding is in place, and can’t plan if they are depending on annual votes for more relief money. They have said that all money not related to Sandy has been sliced out of the House bill.

“All these folks that are yapping on TV that it’s a pork bill, it simply isn’t,” New Jersey Gov. Christie said Monday. “It is a pure Sandy bill now.”

There will be several key votes during the day, beginning in mid-afternoon with votes on about 14 proposed amendments, most aimed at trimming the bill or placing tighter restrictions on the money involved. One key plan calls for cutting discretionary spending across the board by 1.6 percent to offset part of the aid. If that proposal passes, it could weaken support for the bill.

New Jersey and New York lawmakers oppose most of amendments, and have said they are confident of fighting off the most significant ones.

Then there will be votes on two bills to provide the funding: a $17 billion plan that has the blessing of House Republican leadership, and a $33.7 billion amendment that will be a harder lift. The first portion, for the most immediate needs, is expected to pass relatively easily.

The second portion, for long-term projects, faces more resistance. Many House Republicans are expected to oppose that measure, but New Jersey and New York officials hope that they can get it approved with most Democrats voting ‘yes’ and a handful of Republicans.

Final votes are expected around 6:30 to 7 p.m.

The House and Senate approved $9.7 billion for the National Flood Insurance program earlier this month to help pay claims by Sandy victims. Even that fairly non-controversial measure still drew 67 "no" votes in the House, hinting at the fight awaiting the larger plan up today.

The Senate returns to work next week. How quickly they take up the Sandy bill may depend on what comes out of the House.