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Boehner sets Sandy aid vote for Jan. 15 after heavy criticism for recent inaction

Published: Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013 9:10 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — WASHINGTON—House Speaker John A. Boehner on Wednesday set a Jan. 15 vote on a Superstorm Sandy relief bill after enraged Northeast lawmakers—including Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a fellow Republican—blasted the speaker for skipping action on disaster aid in the final hours of the current Congress.

Boehner scheduled the vote after a parade of officials from storm-ravaged New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, led by Christie, criticized Boehner for refusing to allow a vote on a $60-billion aid package.

“Sixty days and counting” Christie said, referring to the time that has passed since Sandy hit. “Shame on you. Shame on Congress...It’s absolutely disgraceful.”

Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., in unusual public criticism of his GOP leader, complained about the “cruel knife in the back” delivered to the hard-hit states. He suggested withholding campaign contributions to House Republicans who have had “no problem finding New York when it comes to raising money.”

The Republican leadership offered no explanation for putting off the vote. The anger, at least among Boehner’s GOP Northeast colleagues, appeared to ease after the speaker promised to schedule a vote Friday on a $9-billion measure to help the national flood insurance program cover Sandy claims. The Jan. 15 vote will involve the larger disaster aid package, expected to be about $51 billion.

“So long as there’s 218 votes on January 15th, all of us are going to be satisfied,” King said after attending a private meeting between Boehner and House Republicans from storm-damaged states.

“Getting critical aid to the victims of Hurricane Sandy should be the first priority in the new Congress,” Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in a written statement after the meeting.

The Senate approved $60 billion in disaster aid last week. House Republican leaders drafted a $27 billion relief bill, which was expected to come up for a vote in the chamber in the final days of the lame-duck Congress.

But when the vote was called off, Northeast lawmakers were infuriated. With the House failing to act before the new Congress begins at noon Thursday, the legislative process must start over.

On Wednesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that without congressional action, funds available to pay Sandy flood insurance claims will be exhausted sometime next week. The bill expected to come before the House Friday would prop up the flood insurance program.

Earlier Wednesday, Democrats and Republicans from hard-hit states took to the House floor to say their states need the aid now.

“‘This is time to stop debating,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., “and take the gloves off, Jersey style.”

“We demand nothing less than we have given the rest of the country,” said Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., noting that billions of dollars of aid were delivered swiftly to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

Some of the sharpest criticism of Boehner came from Christie.

Accusing the House leadership of displaying “callous indifference to the suffering of the people of my state,” Christie said: “If the people of New Jersey feel betrayed today by those who did this in the House last night, then they have good company. I’m with them.”

Christie said the $60 billion in aid, while supported by the Obama administration and 62 senators, “just could not overcome the toxic internal politics of the House majority.”

A number of Republicans said they never received an explanation from Boehner on why he called off a vote. The speaker’s office also declined to explain.

“The speaker made the decision that in view of all the controversy over the fiscal cliff, it wasn’t appropriate to bring this up either last night or this morning,” King said.

A congressional source said the speaker was concerned about bringing up a massive spending bill with many of his GOP rank and file complaining about the absence of significant spending cuts in the deal to avert the “fiscal cliff.”

Some conservatives also argue that some of the proposed spending to shore up defenses against future disasters should be subject to the normal budgetary review process rather than included in an emergency spending measure.

Some expressed concern that the handling of the Sandy relief bill could portend tougher times ahead for securing aid from Congress after earthquakes, fires and other disasters.

“This used to be something that was not political,” Christie said. “Disaster relief was something that you didn’t play games with.... It is why the American people hate Congress.”

Sandy, which was a hurricane before the center of the storm made landfall Oct. 29 in New Jersey, caused more than 125 deaths in the United States.

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