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Sandy victims' outrage forces Congress to vote on relief package

Published time: January 02, 2013 16:02
Edited time: January 03, 2013 01:46
Reuters / Eric Thayer

Reuters / Eric Thayer

After broad criticism over its decision to close the year without acting on an urgent $60 billion disaster aid package for states still cleaning up the damage from Hurricane Sandy, House leaders have pledged to vote on the measure by January 15.

­Speaker of the House John Boehner ruled out a vote in this session, thereby ending the term with unfinished business – and forcing thousands of storm victims to wait even longer for much-needed disaster aid.

However, Boehner and his allies say they are committed to holding a vote on the measure during the first full legislative day of the new Congress.

“Getting critical aid to the victims of Hurricane Sandy should be the first priority in the new Congress,” Boehner stated. “The House will vote Friday to direct needed resources to the National Flood Insurance Program. And on January 15th, the first full legislative day of the 113th Congress, the House will consider the remaining supplemental request for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.”

Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who is in charge of the House schedule, told reporters Tuesday that he was

“99.9 percent confident that this bill would be on the floor”

– but that’s not what happened. Boehner has not made any comments to justify his decision, and has enraged New York area lawmakers.

“This is an absolute disgrace and the speaker should hang his head in shame,” Rep. Eliot Engel, D-NY, told the Associated Press.

Rep. Michael Grimm, R-NY, said the decision was inconsiderate since the bill is “not about politics, it’s about human lives.”

“I’m here tonight saying to myself for the first time that I’m not proud of the decision my team has made,” he said, asking the speaker to reconsider his decision.

“I truly feel betrayed this evening,” added Rep. Nita Lowey, D-NY.

The Senate acted quickly on the measure, passing the $60.4 billion aid package on Friday. Legislators from New York and New Jersey hoped the House would vote on the bill on Wednesday to bring aid to the disaster areas without further delay. Both Republicans and Democrats were in support of providing relief to Sandy victims.

In order to be passed in the new Congress, the bill will now have to undergo a new vote in the Senate, as well as pass in the 113thCongress, thereby further extending the time it takes to go into effect. Rep. Jon Runyan, R-NJ, said this would be the equivalent of setting the ‘reset button’ on the legislation.

Long Island Rep. Peter King said Congress was “walking away from a natural disaster” and “walking away from responsibility”. Instead, the Congress used its last hours to pass a $150 million bill to rebuild fisheries and a $2 million bill to repair roof damage on the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC – both of which are unrelated to the damage caused by the storm.

Boehner’s spokesman, Brendan Buck, told USA Today in an e-mail that the speaker plans to get the bill passed this month and that the disaster aid is not urgently needed. Buck said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has enough money to assist victims of the superstorm until spring.

But the aid provided by FEMA does not cover everything that is needed. Claims by the National Flood Insurance Program, repairs to mass transit, and Community Development Block grants are all dependent on the federal government assistance package.

The 113thCongress convenes at noon on Thursday and will be forced to patch up the wounds that the 112thCongress bestowed upon the American public by abandoning an important measure.

“The people of this country that have been devastated are looking at this as a betrayal by the Congress and by the nation, and that is just untenable and unforgivable,” Grimm said.

While the most recent Congress has been known for its partisanship, its decision on the Sandy relief package was bipartisan. With numerous Democrats and Republicans agreeing wholeheartedly on its passage, their collaboration was cut short as they ended up their term with unfinished business.

“The 112thCongress came in with a bang, but it is crawling out with the soft whimper of failure,” writes Politico’s Jonathan Allen in response to legislators’ failure to act.

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