WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats from New York and New Jersey lashed out at House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday for pulling legislation on Hurricane Sandy aid, demanding that he reverse course and allow a vote as their constituents continue to struggle with the aftermath of the devastating storm. President Barack Obama called for an immediate House vote, and governors of the two states called House inaction a “dereliction of duty.”
The House adjourned for the day, set to return on Thursday at 11 a.m. for an hour before the new Congress begins at noon.
Just hours after he put off a vote, Boehner was scheduled to meet privately with Republican lawmakers from the two states. The speaker was caught between conservative lawmakers who want to offset any increase in spending and Northeast and Mid-Atlantic lawmakers determined to help their states recover more than two months after the storm hit.
The criticism of Boehner on the House floor was personal at times, and reflected in part the frustration among rank-and-file over the decision to press ahead with a vote on the fiscal cliff deal engineered by the White House and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell. Boehner had been struggling with conservatives who complained that the economic package didn't include enough spending cuts.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, said he was frustrated after Boehner pulled the bill Tuesday night and tried to call him four times, but none of the calls were returned. Christie termed it “absolutely disgraceful” and complained about the “toxic internal politics” of the House majority.
“There is no reason for me at the moment to believe anything they tell me,” Christie said.
On Wednesday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. raised the political temperature even more. She said Boehner should come to Staten Island and the Rockaways to explain his decision to families whose homes and businesses were destroyed, and added: “But I doubt he has the dignity nor the guts to do it.”
The move to pull the Sandy bill by Boehner even came as a surprise to the No. 2 Republican in the House, a Republican official said.
A House Republican leadership aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the aide was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was ready to have the House vote on the bill and was surprised when the speaker made the decision late Tuesday to let it die for this session of Congress, which ends Thursday.
Obama, meanwhile, called for House Republicans to vote on the Sandy aid “without delay for our fellow Americans.” The president said in a written statement that many people in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are trying to recover from the storm and need “immediate support with the bulk of winter still in front of us.”
The White House said Obama spoke Wednesday with Christie about the importance of the disaster aid bill, and that the president's staff was in touch with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's team, too, as Obama lobbied for House action.
Christie, a Republican, and Cuomo, a Democrat, issued a joint statement, saying, “The fact that days continue to go by while people suffer, families are out of their homes, and men and women remain jobless and struggling during these harsh winter months is a dereliction of duty.”
A spokesman for Boehner, Michael Steel on Wednesday would not say whether Boehner would reconsider his decision on Sandy aid, responding with the same statement he issued on Tuesday night: “The speaker is committed to getting this bill passed this month.”
Reps. Michael Grimm, a Republican, and Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, said in angry House floor remarks that while they did not agree on much, Boehner's decision amounted to a crushing blow to states battered by the late October storm.
“There was a betrayal,” said Grimm.
The Senate approved a $60.4 billion measure Friday to help with recovery from the storm that devastated parts of New York, New Jersey and nearby states. The House Appropriations Committee has drafted a smaller, $27 billion measure, and a vote had been expected before Congress’ term ends Thursday at noon. An amendment for $33 billion in additional aid, partly to protect against future storms, was also being considered but was seen as having less chance of passage.
Grimm and Nadler were among several New York and New Jersey lawmakers who took to the House floor to complain about Boehner's move. The lawmakers said Boehner pulled the bill without talking to them.
“It's the most disgraceful action I've seen in this House,” said Nadler. “It is a betrayal by the speaker personally of the members of this House,” Nadler said.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called it a “cruel knife in the back” to New and New Jersey. He said some Republicans have a double standard when it comes to providing aid to New York and New Jersey compared with other regions of the country suffering disasters. Somehow, he said, money going to New York and New Jersey is seen as “corrupt.”
King urged donors from the two states not to give money to Republicans who are ignoring their needs on Sandy. King said Congress approved $60 billion for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 within 10 days, but hasn't appropriated any money for Sandy in over two months.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., blamed tea party lawmakers and conservatives who were reluctant to approve new spending soon after the debate over the “fiscal cliff” budget issues for the sudden move by GOP leaders. He said the move was “deplorable.”
King said Tuesday night he was told by Cantor's office that Boehner had decided to abandon a vote this session. Cantor, who sets the House schedule, did not immediately comment.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland told reporters that just before Tuesday evening's vote on “fiscal cliff” legislation, Cantor told him that he was “99.9 percent confident that this bill would be on the floor, and that's what he wanted.”
More than $2 billion in federal funds has been spent so far on relief efforts for 11 states and the District of Columbia struck by the storm, one of the worst ever to hit the Northeast. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund still has about $4.3 billion, enough to pay for recovery efforts into early spring, according to officials. The unspent FEMA money can only be used for emergency services, said Pallone.
New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, District of Columbia, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, New Hampshire, Delaware, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are receiving federal FEMA aid.
Sandy was blamed for at least 120 deaths and battered coastline areas from North Carolina to Maine. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were the hardest hit states and suffered high winds, flooding and storm surges. The storm damaged or destroyed more than 72,000 homes and businesses in New Jersey. In New York, 305,000 housing units were damaged or destroyed and more than 265,000 businesses were affected.