Seventy-eight days after Hurricane Sandy socked the Northeast, the House on Tuesday night passed a $51 billion aid package designed to provide the stricken region with emergency relief as well as funding to undertake long-term structural repairs.
The House approved the bill by a vote of 241 to 180. It garnered nearly unanimous support from Democrats but required the help of 49 Republicans, many of whom hail from districts devastated by the Oct. 29 storm, to nudge it over the line. The measure is expected to be taken up by the Democratic-controlled Senate when the upper chamber returns to Washington next week.
The House bill comes on top of the nearly $10 billion allocated to replenish flood-insurance programs earlier this month and makes up the balance of the $60 billion aid package sought by the White House and passed by the Senate late last year. Late on New Year’s Eve, House Speaker John Boehner scuttled the Senate bill when restive rank-and-file Republicans bristled at including nonemergency spending, including provisions Republicans considered to be earmarks, into an emergency disaster-relief bill. The episode sparked recriminations between Northeastern Republicans and their more conservative colleagues. That spat may be over, but the bitter fight is a sign of strife to come as Congress edges toward a series of budget showdowns in February and March that holds the health of the U.S. economy in the balance.
The House’s Sandy relief bill was broken into two main components, both sponsored by Republicans. The first package, a $17 billion tranche composed mostly of short-term emergency funding for communities whacked by the historic storm, was authored by Hal Rogers, the Appropriations Committee chairman from Kentucky. The larger and more controversial amendment, authored by Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, drew objections from House Republicans because it contained some $12 billion in long-term development projects that was open to nearly all states. While Rogers’ package sailed through the House, Frelinghuysen’s amendment passed narrowly, winning the support of just 38 House Republicans.
It was the second time in two weeks, following the fiscal-cliff deal, that Boehner was forced to pass a major piece of legislation with a majority of votes from Democrats. The practice is in violation of what is known as the Hastert Rule (named for Boehner’s predecessor), which dictates that the Speaker only bring to the floor bills that have the support of the majority of the ruling party.
But while Republicans may control the House, their fractious conference has proved incapable of governing. The 112th Congress passed the fewest bills on record. Much of its time was spent defusing self-inflicting crises, as it crept to the brink of a government shutdown and a cataclysmic default on the nation’s debt. The Sandy relief package, the first major legislation of the new Congress, is a signal that the lower chamber may yet be more chaotic this session. Even the seemingly unassailable cause of disaster relief was jeopardized by conservatives’ cost-cutting fervor. Ninety-two amendments were filed to jettison or offset spending provisions members deemed unnecessary. The morass threatened the bill’s passage before the House Rules Committee, effectively controlled by Boehner, deemed the majority of amendments out of order late Monday night. Only 12 were permitted to reach the floor.