Congress sends $61.9 billion storm Sandy aid bill to Obama

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Congress on Monday finally approved more than US$50 billion (S$61.9 billion) in emergency disaster aid for Hurricane Sandy, 13 weeks after the superstorm ravaged much of the coastal United States northeast and left thousands homeless.

The bill, approved earlier this month by the House, comes after a nearly monthlong delay triggered bipartisan rage that Republican lawmakers were politicising relief funding and seeking to offset the costly legislation with federal spending cuts at a time of crisis for thousands of Americans.

The US$50.5 billion in immediate and short-term funding forms the bulk of the US$60.2 billion in total aid approved by Congress for victims of the storm, which killed 120 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes and businesses, with the bulk of the damage occurring in New Jersey and New York.

A US$9.7 billion tranche providing emergency flood relief funding was approved earlier in January.

Monday's relief bill, which needed to surpass a 60-vote threshold, passed 62-36 and now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

It has been "91 days since we have been languishing, waiting for our government to respond to the critical issues, life-and-death situations of fellow Americans", Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey told the chamber minutes before the vote.

Mr Menendez, like other lawmakers deeply frustrated at the slow congressional pace, compared the relief process to Katrina, "where US$60 billion was moved in 11" days.

Frustration among lawmakers and state officials in the northeast boiled over in late December, when the US House failed to take up a Senate-passed Sandy supplemental bill before the 112th Congress came to an end, meaning emergency relief legislation had to start from scratch in the 113th Congress.

The senators easily defeated an amendment to the bill which had sought to offset billions of dollars in hurricane relief costs with federal spending cuts.

There was widespread relief after the Senate passed its latest measure, including from northeastern governors who expressed gratitude for the Senate passage "despite the difficult path in getting to this moment."

The Senate "clearly recognised early on 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", governors Andrew Cuomo of New York, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Dannel Malloy of Connecticut said in a statement.