Stormy issue of Sandy aid settles down in House

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The political tempest stirred up by Superstorm Sandy appears to have moved on after wreaking havoc among congressional Republicans divided over how much aid to allocate to the victims.

In a 241-180 vote Tuesday night, the House approved $50.5 billion in disaster relief for Sandy victims. The Senate is expected to accept the measure early next week and send it to President Barack Obama in spite of some Democratic concerns that it doesn't do enough.

"While the House bill is not quite as good as the Senate bill, it is certainly close enough," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

House Democrats supported the aid package in large numbers Tuesday night, but substantial Republican backing was needed for its passage in the GOP-controlled House. There were 192 Democrats and 49 Republicans voting to pass the measure.

"Time is of the essence, we strongly prefer that the Senate take up this legislation quickly, pass it and send it on to the president for his signature," said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.

The victory was tinged with some bitterness for Northeast lawmakers who have complained that Congress approved tens of billions of dollars in aid within days of Hurricane Katrina but dragged their feet for more than two months on Sandy aid.

Sandy pounded several states in late October and has been blamed for 140 deaths and billions of dollars in residential and business property damage. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were hardest hit. Power outages and interruptions to public transportation made life miserable for millions, and the clamor for federal relief began almost immediately.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called it an "outstanding victory for the people of New York, New Jersey and Long Island," but he added that "it is unfortunate that we had to fight so hard to be treated the same as every other state has been treated."

House Democrats were politically pointed as they brushed back most attempts by Southern conservatives to reduce the measure or offset part of its cost through spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. Critics said the proposed cuts would crimp Pentagon spending as well as domestic accounts.

Conservatives did succeed in stripping $150 million for Regional Ocean Partnership Grants and $9.8 million for rebuilding seawalls and buildings on uninhabited islands in the Steward McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in Connecticut.

The House measure includes about $16 billion to repair transit systems in New York and New Jersey and a similar amount for housing and other needs in the affected area. An additional $5.4 billion would go to the Federal Emergency and Management Agency for disaster relief, and $2 billion is ticketed for restoration of highways damaged or destroyed in the storm.

The Senate approved a $60.4 billion measure in the final days of the Congress that expired Jan. 3, and a House vote had been expected quickly. But House Speaker John Boehner unexpectedly postponed the vote in the final hours of the expiring Congress as he struggled to calm conservatives unhappy that the House had just approved a separate measure raising tax rates on the wealthy.

Boehner's delay sparked a public uproar, much of it from other Republicans like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who lobbied Congress hard for aid.

"There's only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims, the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner," Christie said on the day after the delay was announced. King fumed that campaign donors in the Northeast who give to Republicans "should have their head examined."

Less than two weeks later, the GOP leadership brought legislation to the floor under ground rules designed to satisfy as many Republicans as possible while retaining support from Democrats eager to approve as much in disaster aid as possible.

Congress has already approved a $9.7 billion increase in a fund to pay federal flood insurance claims, much of it expected to benefit victims of Sandy.

The House-passed Sandy aid package does not include some projects that were in the Senate version and drew sharp fire from conservatives as unrelated to the storm. Not included in the House bill was a provision for $150 million for fisheries disasters that states such as Alaska and Mississippi could have shared. Also left out was $188 million for an Amtrak expansion project that included new, long-planned tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station in Manhattan.

The House version has $1.1 billion more than the Senate bill to help repair storm-damaged highways.

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