US Congress approves $12b aid for storm Sandy victims

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States (US) Congress finally approved emergency disaster aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy on Friday, but only after a delay that sparked East Coast Republican outrage against their own party leadership.

The House voted 354-67 to provide the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) with US$9.7 billion (S$12 billion) to pay the flood insurance claims of thousands of victims of the killer October storm that devastated coastal communities.

The legislation, just a wedge of a much larger package sought by the White House, then breezed through the Senate by voice vote, and goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

"We should not have parades down the street because this bill has passed," said Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who has spearheaded efforts to speed up congressional approval for aid.

"The major work of helping the victims of Sandy is still ahead of us. The bad news is that we had to even go through this dog and pony show in the first place."

The Senate had approved a comprehensive US$60.4 billion Sandy aid package last week, but Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who was stung by fractious negotiations over the deal to avert the fiscal cliff crisis, refused to bring it to the floor.

The delay enraged Democrats and Republicans alike in the New York and New Jersey delegations.

Friday's bill boosts borrowing authority for the depleted National Flood Insurance Program, which is meant to cover the roughly 120,000 Sandy-related claims filed to date.

Fema has said the programme would have run dry next week without additional funds.

Even as Mr Boehner has since vowed to bring the remaining US$51 billion of the package to a vote on Jan 15, bitter debate is likely to continue, and Mr Schumer expressed worry about the package's future.

"To be a bride and left at the altar once is bad enough. To be left twice would be unconscionable," he said.

Republican congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey told the House that the bill was "the first step of what we need to do to rebuild lives." "It's been 70 days and many have been living in misery and heartache," he said.

Several lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, pointed to the swift action by Congress to fund relief efforts in the aftermath of deadly Hurricane Katrina.

"We were there within days," Mr Reid said of the 2005 disaster that ravaged the Gulf Coast. "It's too bad that it's taken so long" for Sandy.

Mr Boehner had scrambled to tamp down fury over the delay on aid to victims of the storm, which killed 120 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes and businesses in New York, New Jersey and neighboring northeastern states.

Mr Obama had joined New Jersey's outspoken Republican Governor Chris Christie in leading the charge against Mr Boehner's delay, which Mr Christie described as "absolutely disgraceful." The outrage quickly gained the national spotlight, and Mr Boehner wasted little time announcing the two-part vote.

"This is not a handout, this is not something we're looking for as a favour," Republican congressman Peter King of New York, who had lashed out at Mr Boehner when he learned of the delay, told the House.

"What we're asking for is to be treated the same as victims (from) other natural disaster victims have been treated." Some Republicans including Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, a hurricane-prone state which has received billions in federal disaster aid, voted against the Sandy bill in the Senate, claiming it was stuffed with "pork" - funding for projects or elements unrelated to Sandy relief.

Darrell Issa, the powerful Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, continued in that vein Friday, saying "we need to get the pork out" and pointing to funding in the Senate bill that went to programs in Alaska, clear across the country from the Sandy disaster zone.

Mr Issa expressed hope the new legislation would be a "clean bill" focused exclusively on Sandy relief.

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