Congress passes $50.5B Sandy relief bill

Republicans unable to require offsetting cuts

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 two 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.

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.

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 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.

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.”

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.

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