* House defeats amendment seeking $17 bln in spending cuts
to offset aid
* NJ, NY governors express relief at passage
By David Lawder
WASHINGTON, Jan 15 The House of Representatives
on Tuesday approved $50.5 billion in long-delayed federal
disaster aid to victims of Superstorm Sandy, but not before
Republicans flexed their budget-cutting muscle to strike some
The aid package for the storm that ravaged New York and New
Jersey coastlines now moves to the Democratic-controlled Senate,
where it is expected to win swift passage.
The legislation had been tied up for weeks in the House amid
congressional brawling over U.S. deficit reduction, spending and
taxes in the New Year's new fiscal drama.
And surprisingly stiff opposition from Republicans in the
241-180 vote foreshadows a tough road ahead for winning House
approval of future budget deals over the debt limit and other
looming fiscal deadlines.
East Coast politicians abandoned their recently frustrated
tone and expressed relief at the House vote.
"The tradition of Congress of being there and providing
support for Americans in times of crisis, no matter where they
live across this great country, lives on in today's vote in the
House of Representatives," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a
Democrat, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican,
said in a joint statement.
The House approved the aid in two parts - $17 billion in
funds to cover immediate disaster relief needs and $33.5 billion
in longer-term reconstruction funds. The longer-term funds drew
more opposition from House Republicans who saw it as loaded with
spending that was unnecessary or that would take years to occur.
Republicans managed to whittle the package down slightly by
eliminating $150 million in National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration grant money as well as striking $9.8 million for
rebuilding seawalls and buildings on uninhabited islands in a
Connecticut wildlife reserve.
The House defeated a Republican attempt to require $17
billion in across-the-board spending cuts for fiscal 2013 to pay
for part of the aid package.
Republican Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina,
reflecting strong desire in his party to force spending cuts
after accepting higher tax rates on the wealthy, said he did not
want to fund the aid with borrowed money.
"It is important to me that this money goes to the folks
that need it very badly. It's so important to me that we should
pay for it," Mulvaney said in debate on the House floor.
The vote follows Congress' Jan. 4 passage of $9.7 billion in
initial funds to keep the National Flood Insurance Program
solvent and to pay homeowners' flood claims from Sandy. The
funds approved on Tuesday bring total House-approved Sandy aid
to $60.2 billion, just shy of earlier proposals.
But the bulk of the federal aid for victims of the Oct. 29
storm that killed more than 130 people and destroyed thousands
of homes was tied up in controversy.
House Speaker John Boehner infuriated New York and New
Jersey politicians on Jan. 1 when he canceled a vote for a
previous, Senate-passed $60.4 billion version of the legislation
amid Republican angst over accepting higher tax rates on the
wealthy in a deal to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.
The move prompted howls of protest that the largely
Democratic East Coast states were being treated much more
harshly than the Gulf Coast states that suffered massively from
Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Just 10 days after that storm,
Congress had approved $62 billion in federal disaster aid.
It was clear from House floor debate and public statements
that these lawmakers were still steamed about the wait, which
they said has delayed reconstruction work.
"The families affected by Sandy are in their hour of need.
They have waited far too long for this institution to act," said
Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat.
Noting the current "precarious fiscal times," House
Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers said the panel had
given the legislation "a good scrub and we have adjusted funding
levels to make the best use of taxpayer dollars."
Among these changes were elimination of funds for damaged
fisheries in Alaska and on the Gulf Coast, as well as cutting
funding for other disasters such as western U.S. wildfires.
Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, in an opinion piece
in the Washington Times, asked whether the bar for disaster
funding was continually being lowered.
"As we continue to borrow more than 30 cents on the dollar,
much of it from the Chinese, can and should the federal
government continue to fund the restoration of private homes,
businesses and automobiles?" Hensarling wrote.