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Jan. 16--WASHINGTON -- A $50.7 billion aid bill to help the Northeast recover from Hurricane Sandy won approval in the House on Tuesday, clearing a hurdle that had tripped up the measure and brought ideological and regional rifts to the surface just two weeks earlier.
The plan, part of a roughly $60 billion relief package sought by officials from New Jersey and New York state, could come up for approval as soon as next Tuesday in the Senate, according to a Democratic aide. President Obama is expected to sign the measure swiftly once it clears the Senate.
Lawmakers from New Jersey and New York said the package was needed to help families whose homes were torn apart and businesses that were flooded, as well as to rebuild infrastructure and add protections to blunt damage from future storms.
"We need this money. We need it now," U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) said on the House floor. Fellow New Jersey Republican Frank LoBiondo, blasting GOP members whose regions had received disaster aid in the past but who opposed the Sandy bill, called them the "hypocrisy caucus."
The bill was approved, 241-180, with mostly Democratic support and Republican opposition.
House Republicans who oppose new government spending and debt questioned whether much of the bill's total is really for an emergency. The GOP generally supported a scaled-back $17 billion relief plan.
U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R., S.C.) argued for across-the-board spending cuts of 1.6 percent to offset $17 billion of Sandy aid.
"We should be willing as a body to come together and say, 'Look, there are things that we do not need this year, things we can do without this year, so that people [in need] can have it,' " Mulvaney said. "The time has come and gone in this nation when we can walk in here and spend nine or 17 or 60 billion and not think about how we're going to pay for it."
House Republicans voted by 179-49 against the full $50.7 billion plan, although all six Republicans from the Philadelphia region voted in favor of the larger proposal, bucking the majority of their caucus for the second time this month. They also backed the fiscal cliff deal that passed Jan. 1.
U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan (R., Pa.), among the Republicans who supported the Sandy bill, said lawmakers had a responsibility to help neighbors in need.
"It is the right and decent thing to do," Meehan said in a statement.
Democrats voted for the full bill by 192-1.
Republican criticism, and attempts to force through spending cuts to offset the relief bill, drew the ire of Northeastern lawmakers, who showed that some of their fury still lingered after fiscal conservatives stalled an expected vote earlier this month.
"A new caucus should be formed -- we have a lot of caucuses here -- it should be the hypocritical caucus," LoBiondo, whose district includes much of the hard-hit Jersey Shore, said in a speech. He pointed out that other Republicans represented states that received similar federal help after natural disasters. "When you wanted the money five minutes before the storm was over, you didn't have any hesitation coming to us and asking us," he said.
LoBiondo said colleagues from other regions were "changing the rules for hundreds of thousands of people in the middle of the game."
"Florida, good luck with no more hurricanes. California, congratulations. Did you get rid of the [San] Andreas fault?" he asked. "The Mississippi's in a drought. You think you're not going to have a flood again? Who are you going to come to when you have these things?"
The money approved Tuesday included $16 billion for community development block grants designed to give towns flexibility in rebuilding, $11.5 billion in disaster relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and $10.9 billion for public transportation repairs.
Several amendments trimmed pieces of the measure, but only around the edges.
"The tradition of Congress being there and providing support for Americans during times of crisis, no matter where they live across this great country, lives on in today's vote," Gov. Christie and Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Dannel Malloy of Connecticut said in a statement.
The bill approved Tuesday comes on top of $9.7 billion for flood insurance approved by the House and Senate Jan. 4 and already signed into law.
After both parties backed the $17 billion relief plan Tuesday, Northeastern lawmakers tacked on $33 billion of aid, mostly with support from Democrats, and passed the measures together.
"This is not an act of excess or an act of charity," said U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D, N.J.). New Jersey, New York and Connecticut contribute nearly 16 percent of the nation's tax revenue, he said.
"For those who claim there is excess in this bill, I would suggest they read it," he said.
Critics had zeroed in on items not tied to Sandy -- including $150 million for Alaskan fisheries and $2 million for roof repairs at the Smithsonian Institution -- that were relatively small pieces of the overall package but were still worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the Senate version of the measure.
The Senate passed its plan in late December, but those provisions were stripped from the House bill -- though the measure now includes $2 million for Smithsonian salaries and expenses instead of a roof.
Contact Jonathan Tamari at [email protected] or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari. Read his blog "Capitol Inq" at www.philly.com/CapitolInq.
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