WASHINGTON — President Obama said he'll sign a $50.5 billion emergency relief measure for Superstorm Sandy victims as soon as it lands on his desk.
Three months after Sandy ravaged coastal areas in much of the Northeast, Obama chided lawmakers for taking their time to approve the funding even as he commended them for providing the long-awaited aid.
“So while I had hoped Congress would provide this aid sooner, I applaud the lawmakers from both parties who helped shepherd this important package though,” Obama said in a statement late Monday.
Despite opposition from conservatives concerned about adding billions of dollars to the nation's debt, the Senate cleared the bill, 62-36, after House Republicans had stripped it earlier this month of spending unrelated to disasters.
“This is a huge relief,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Northeast lawmakers said the money is urgently needed to start rebuilding homes, businesses, public transportation facilities and other infrastructure damaged by the Oct. 29 storm, one of the worst to strike the Northeast. Sandy is blamed for more than 130 deaths in the U.S. and tens of billions of dollars in property damages, particularly in New York and New Jersey.
The measure is aimed primarily at helping residents and businesses as well as state and local governments rebuild from the storm. The biggest chunk of money is $16 billion for Housing and Urban Development Department community block grants. Of that, about $12.1 billion will be shared among Sandy victims as well as those from other federally declared disasters in 2011-13. The remaining $3.9 billion is solely for Sandy-related projects.
More than $11 billion will go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief aid fund for Sandy and other disasters. Another $10 billion is devoted to repairing New York and New Jersey transit systems.
Earlier in January, Congress approved and Obama signed a $9.7 billion bill to replenish the National Flood Insurance Program, which has received well over 100,000 claims related to Sandy. Added to the new, $50.5 billion package, the total is roughly in line with the $60.4 billion Obama requested in December.
The aid package was greased for passage before the last Congress adjourned and the new one came in on Jan. 3. But Speaker John Boehner refused to bring it to the floor after two-thirds of House Republicans voted against a “fiscal cliff” deficit-reduction deal raising taxes on couples making more than $450,000 a year while deferring some $24 billion in spending cuts in defense and domestic programs.
The ruckus after the Senate had passed an earlier $60.4 billion Sandy relief package by a nearly 2-to-1 margin on Dec. 28 exposed deep political divisions within Republican ranks. “There's only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims: the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner,” Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fumed at the time.
Top House Republicans responded by bringing new Sandy aid legislation to the floor under ground rules designed to win over as many Republicans as possible while retaining support from Democrats eager to approve as much in disaster aid as possible.
GOP leaders cut spending in the Senate bill unrelated to disasters. One was to transfer $1 billion from training programs for Iraqi policemen to bolstering security at U.S. diplomatic missions. The shift in money followed a Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Also deleted was $188 million for an Amtrak expansion project that included new, long-planned tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station in Manhattan.
As with past natural disasters, the Sandy aid bill is not offset with spending cuts, meaning the aid adds to the deficit. The lone exception is an offset provision requiring that $3.4 billion for Army Corps of Engineers projects to protect against future storms be covered by an equal amount of unspecified spending cuts in other programs before next October.
The Senate on Monday rejected, 35-62, an attempt by conservatives to amend the final package with an offset provision to cut federal programs across the board by one-half of 1 percent through 2021.