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US Congress OKs partial storm relief

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Congress on Friday approved US$9.7 billion in initial relief for victims of Superstorm Sandy, but New York and New Jersey lawmakers seethed over delays in passing the rest of a US$60.4 billion federal aid package.

The House of Representatives voted 354-67 to keep the National Flood Insurance Program solvent and able to pay claims of thousands of homeowners who suffered flood damage in coastal New York, New Jersey and Connecticut from the October storm.

The Senate then quickly passed the measure by voice vote, and it now moves to President Barack Obama to be signed into law on his vacation in Hawaii.

House Speaker John Boehner drew scathing criticism this week — including blasts from New York and New Jersey Republicans — when he canceled a House vote on the full US$60.4 billion aid package passed by the Senate.

The frustration continued on Friday as lawmakers from both parties complained that the flood insurance infusion would do little to help the bulk of those suffering more than two months after the devastating Oct. 29 storm.

“It took only 10 days after Katrina for President (George W.) Bush to sign US$60 billion in Katrina aid,” said New Jersey Democratic Representative Bill Pascrell, referring to the 2005 hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast. “How dare you come to this floor and make people think everything is OK.”

Boehner, re-elected on Thursday for another term as House speaker, canceled the earlier vote on the full Sandy aid package amid Republican discontent on Tuesday over the fiscal cliff deal. That legislation prevented tax hikes on most Americans but did not achieve the significant spending cuts House Republicans wanted.

An aide to Boehner said Tuesday night was “not a good time” to hold a vote on another massive spending bill.

But after coming under fire from Republicans, including Representative Peter King of New York and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie a potential presidential contender for 2016, Boehner scheduled Friday's vote on the piece of the package.

He also promised a second vote on Jan. 15 for the remaining portion of nearly US$51 billion in aid. The House is not in session next week.

“This is a crisis of unimaginable proportions,” King said. “If you saw the suffering that's going on, if you saw the people who don't have food and shelter, you'd realize how horrible this is.”

The federal flood insurance program will run out of money next week to pay claims without the US$9.7 billion increase in borrowing capacity, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said.

Putting more money into the program would come months after Obama signed a law aimed at improving its finances. Congress bailed out the program after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and it is nearly US$20 billion in debt.

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