The U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve a Hurricane Sandy relief package totaling $50.7 billion Tuesday night, the culmination of a contentious day that included charges of overspending from House Republicans and demands from legislators in Sandy-affected areas for their Congressional peers to do the right thing.
The aid was approved in two measures, the first in the form of a $17 billion package designed to provide immediate aid primarily to victims of Sandy in New York and New Jersey, and the second, overarching package, adding an additional $33.7 billion in aid and bringing the total to more than $50 billion.
The purpose of splitting the aid package, presumably, was to give House Republicans the chance to vote for immediate aid while rejecting a larger package some have contested contains irresponsible spending and would throw the country into deeper debt. The $50.7 billion joins the more than $9 billion approved by Congress to fund the national flood insurance program, a necessary step in paying Sandy victims insured against flooding.
Though the final vote was closer than anticipated, the entire Sandy aid package was passed 241-180, with 179 of the no votes coming from members of the GOP. HR 152 will now move on to the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate where it’s expected to be approved next week.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie along with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy issued a joint statement soon after the passage of the aid bill, thanking Congress for setting aside politics to approve funding critical to recovery.
“We are grateful to those members of Congress who today pulled together in a unified, bipartisan coalition to assist millions of their fellow Americans in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut at their greatest time of need,” the statement read. “The tradition of Congress being there and providing support for Americans during times of crisis, no matter where they live across this great country, lives on in today’s vote in the House of Representatives.”
Though some Republicans did cross the aisle to approve Sandy aid, the vote on the $33.7 billion portion of the package was won by only 36 votes. House Republicans attempted to chip away at the bill by introducing amendments throughout the proceedings aimed at cutting entitlements and perceived pork that they believe was surreptitiously added to a bill that should have been directed only to victims of Hurricane Sandy.
Among the objections of the GOP were funding for the National Weather Service’s Ground Readiness Program, which is used to better predict storms like Sandy, NOAA grant funding, used to aid the study of climate change, among other environmental issues, and $1 million in funding for Sandy victims in need of legal advice and services.
Several local leaders spoke in support of the aid package throughout the day Tuesday and chastised objecting Republicans, specifically those Representatives who come from states that have needed federal disaster assistance in the past, for being hypocritical.
One of the most emphatic speakers Tuesday was Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2, who challenged his fellow Republicans for failing to provide proper support for the country’s citizens. In New Jersey, there are senior citizens who have been displaced from their homes with no idea if they’ll ever return. Young families have had to deal with a life-altering disaster and small businesses, the backbone of our country, he said, don’t know how to get back up and running.
“We were there for you,” he said to opposing Republicans from states that have gladly accepted disaster aid. “We were there Florida when you had your hurricane, and God bless you if you think you’re not going to have another hurricane.”
Some criticisms from New Jersey Representatives dealt with the delay in passage of Sandy aid. While other regions received aid just days after disaster, like those impacted by Hurricane Katrina, residents of the Northeastern part of the United States have had to wait months.
Rep. Rob Andrews said it was a folly to delay aid, especially to a region of the country that’s vital to the U.S. economy. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are donor states, he said, echoing a familiar refrain from other local politicians and Christie. Together, the three states pay almost 16 percent of the taxes collected in the entire country.
“This is not an act of excess or an act of charity,” he said, adding: “All Americans will suffer if this economic engine is not rebuilt.”
Rep. Chris Smith, R-4, said the funding would provide a crucial backstop for residents and businesses trying to recover from Sandy. He also praised the effort undertaken by residents, first responders and officials during and following Sandy, before the call for aid was issued.
“First responders courageously rescued people trapped in homes and cars often with minimal regard for their own personal welfare, safety and well-being. Everyone rallied," he said in a statement. "Around the clock. The Governor, Chris Christie, emergency management personnel, the National Guard, police and fire, elected officials. Monmouth County OEM Director Sheriff Shaun Golden was absolutely tenacious and effective. And our local mayors, they were like NFL quarterbacks—running the plays, making calls—day by day, hour by hour.”
While the aid package took an unprecedented delay in getting Congressional approval and exposed the ugliness of partisan politics in the process, the passage of HR 152 will be used to benefit those most in need. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-6, said the approval of the aid package couldn’t have come sooner.
“House passage of this package means we are one step closer to families returning home and businesses rebuilding so they can once again contribute to our economy,” he said in a statement. “It also means our communities will receive flood protection so a similar storm won’t produce similar destruction. I look forward to swift action in the Senate so we may move towards building a stronger New Jersey.”