Congress OKs $9.7 billion in Sandy aid

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congress overwhelmingly approved $9.7 billion in funding for Superstorm Sandy flood insurance Friday as New York lawmakers looked warily at the difficult road ahead for passage of the final $50.3 billion in the disaster aid package later this month.

The temporary funding for the strapped National Flood Insurance Program flew through the House on a 354-67 vote and the Senate in a voice vote, with all Democrats and most Republicans voting for it. Republicans cast all the no votes.

Along the way, key Republicans warned they’d like to see the second installment of the overall $60 billion package scaled back, its “pork” removed and its cost paid for with other federal spending cuts

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the GOP candidate for vice president last year, voted no on the bill Friday and indicated he may oppose the rest of the package.

“It refuses to distinguish — or even prioritize — disaster relief over pork-barrel spending,” Ryan said in a statement.

Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., acknowledged difficulties lie ahead, saying “It’s just a down payment. Now we have $51 billion to go.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he’s “worried” about the rest of the aid.

“We can’t just pass this $9 billion bill and then say, ‘That’s it,’ ” he said. “We can’t let the House pass this and sit back on their laurels.”

The Republican-controlled House will vote on the remaining $51 billion of the aid package on Jan. 15, King said. The Democratic-controlled Senate will take it up the following week with the intention of passing the package by the end of the month, Schumer said.

House Democrats Friday blasted Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, for pulling the plug on a vote on the $60 billion package earlier this week, and rescheduling two votes only after King and others staged a GOP revolt.

Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said they would try to negotiate with the House to get a bill that could be passed in both chambers. They said they preferred the Senate version.

The bill includes money for unfunded disasters unrelated to Sandy, such as $150 million for fisheries in Alaska and Mississippi. Those funds are among what Republicans called “pork” in the House debate Friday.

“Jan. 15 is critical,” said. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. “We do need to negotiate with the Senate. We need to get the pork out.”

King interrupted, “It’s important to point out the House bill never contained any of those extraneous provisions.”

The flood insurance bill was expected to be the easiest part of the aid package to pass.

FEMA said that without more funds the National Flood Insurance Program would run out of money next week, delaying payments on 115,000 Sandy-related claims and 5,000 other claims to people who paid premiums.

Still, some Republicans balked at funding a program already $20 billion in debt.

“Right now members are faced with a tragic choice of not paying contractual claims to victims who paid premiums, or adding $9.7 billion to an insane national debt that threatens our national security, our economic well-being and children’s future,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.

Ryan, House Budget Committee chairman, said he voted no because “it would be irresponsible to raise an insolvent program’s debt ceiling without making the necessary reforms.”

Schumer said the flood insurance program should be fixed.

“But to hold the homeowners who desperately need this money and have paid into this money as almost hostage to reform?” Schumer said.

“That’s unconscionable. Unconscionable. Wrong,” he said. “And I would hope Congressman Ryan would reconsider.”