Congress sends $50.5 billion Sandy relief bill to Obama

(MCT) — WASHINGTON — Congress on Monday sent to President Barack Obama a $50.5 billion relief bill to help the Northeast recover from Superstorm Sandy, ending a political furor over delays in the disaster aid.

The measure cleared the Senate, 62-36, only a few votes more than the 60 needed. Its approval, coming after the president earlier this month signed a $9.7 billion flood insurance bill to help pay Sandy damage claims, would bring the relief package to more than $60 billion.

“It was three months ago that Superstorm Sandy tore up the East Coast,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told colleagues. “Not one day has passed since Sandy made landfall that I haven’t heard from my constituents wondering when Washington will remember them.”

Obama said he would sign the bill “as soon as it hits my desk.”

The House approved the measure on Jan. 15 after Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, drew the ire of Northeast officials, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a fellow Republican, for earlier putting off a vote.

Christie and Govs. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut issued a joint statement expressing appreciation to the Senate for recognizing the “urgency and necessity of approving the full aid package and its importance in rebuilding our battered infrastructure and getting our millions of affected residents back on their feet as quickly as possible.”

The bill would fund a wide range of relief from the second costliest storm in U.S. history after Hurricane Katrina.

Funds are included for low interest loans for homeowners and businesses for rebuilding, disaster unemployment assistance and money to help clear debris. Funding will help replenish stocks at food banks and soup kitchens and repair visitor facilities on Liberty Island, where the Statue of Liberty remains closed. A large chunk will go to repair the transportation system.

A majority of Republicans voted against the bill after unsuccessfully seeking to offset the aid with cuts to other federal spending.

The debate suggests that disaster aid, which has traditionally passed with strong bipartisan support, could run into greater resistance in the future due to Washington’s red ink.

“We have a habit here of throwing money at things under an emergency category and then later finding out, one, it wasn’t an emergency where the money went, and number two, it was misspent and not effective,” said Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., who voted no.

Heritage Action for America, political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, urged a no vote, contending that “far too much of the funding goes toward superfluous programs that are not related to Hurricane Sandy relief.”

Critics of the bill have argued that spending for such things as shoring up defenses against future storms and improving weather forecasting should be weighed against other spending needs during the normal budget process.

But Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., responded, “We should not use disasters as an excuse to push ideology.”

“For decades, taxpayers from New York have sent their money when disasters occurred, with fires on the West Coast or floods in the Missouri and Mississippi valleys or hurricanes in Louisiana and Florida,” Schumer said. “... and now, all of a sudden, some are suggesting we should change the rules when we are hit by the first major disaster to hit the New York City region in a very long time. That’s not fair.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency reports that it has spent $1.2 billion to aid 173,000 storm victims with home repairs and rental assistance. The Small Business Administration says it has spent $1.1 billion to provide low-interest loans to 16,192 businesses, homeowners and nonprofit groups.

Sandy, a hurricane before the center of the storm made landfall Oct. 29 in New Jersey, killed more than 125 people in the United States.