WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Senate approved more than $50 billion in aid to states battered by Superstorm Sandy on Monday, four weeks after a delay that sparked bipartisan fury from Northeastern lawmakers.
The money includes grant funding for owners of homes and businesses, as well as funding for public improvement projects on the electrical grid, hospitals and transit systems to prevent damage from future storms.
The 62-36 vote came after senators turned back an attempt to require budget cuts elsewhere to offset the cost of storm relief, a proposal that further irked several members.
"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," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York). "We've sent our tax dollars, billions of them -- 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. That's not right."
Sandy killed at least 113 people in the United States, flooded much of lower Manhattan and Long Island and smashed New Jersey's seaside towns when it struck October 29. New York has estimated its storm-related costs at nearly $42 billion, while New Jersey's estimated losses totaled about $37 billion.
A proposed amendment by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) would have offset the cost of the disaster relief bill with other spending cuts around the government. It received only 35 votes Monday afternoon.
"My heart goes out" to residents of the stricken area, said Lee, a tea party favorite elected in 2010. But he added, "We have to stop and consider the fact that we are more than $16 trillion in debt and that we're adding to that debt at a rate of more than $1 trillion every year."
The Senate approved a $60 billion aid package for the hard-hit region in late December. But House Speaker John Boehner scrapped a vote on the bill before the clock ran out on the last Congress on January 1, leading to howls of outrage from residents and officials in New York and New Jersey.
"We have never had a natural disaster before where Congress walked away," thundered Rep. Peter King, a Republican from Long Island.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, called it "a total collapse of leadership on the part of Speaker Boehner."
And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the keynote speaker at last year's GOP convention, said the move explained "why the American people hate Congress."
Chastened House leaders quickly scheduled new votes, passing $9 billion to bolster the federal flood insurance program in the first week of January and voting 241-180 to approve another $50 billion on January 15.
Most Republicans voted against the second bill, complaining that the spending should have been offset by cuts elsewhere. The Senate also passed the flood insurance bill, which was signed by President Barack Obama in early January.
U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) issued the following statement Monday, following the Senate's vote:
"When a disaster exceeds the ability of communities and states, I believe the federal government has a responsibility to help people rebuild. Federal aid is an important tool to help get people back on their feet by restoring the infrastructure that was in place before a disaster - not a chance for Congress to attach stimulus-type spending or fundamentally alter the way we respond to future tragedies.
"In Missouri, we've had our fair share of disasters over the past two years during major flooding events, drought, and several tornadoes - including a deadly EF-5 tornado that devastated the City of Joplin in 2011. Following these tragic events, Congress provided targeted disaster funding through a regular appropriations process.
"Unfortunately, we did not follow the same process after Superstorm Sandy. I voted against this bill because it rewrites the Stafford Act and moves us farther away from a viable, long-term solution for funding national disasters."