|Governor Chris Christie holds a press conference in Keansburg, New Jersey November 5, 2012. REUTERS/New Jersey Governor's Office/Tim Larsen/Handout
WASHINGTON - House Speaker John Boehner abruptly reversed course on Wednesday and set a timetable to approve $60 billion in Superstorm Sandy relief, after fellow Republicans including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie heaped scorn on his cancellation of an earlier vote.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives will now vote on Friday on a $9 billion down payment for storm-related support to the National Flood Insurance Program.
Boehner also assured New York and New Jersey lawmakers that the House will take a second vote on Jan. 15 on the $51 billion remainder of the Sandy disaster aid package approved last week in the U.S. Senate.
“This procedure that was laid out is fully acceptable and fully satisfactory. It provides the full $60 billion that we require,” said Representative Peter King, a high-ranking House Republican from Long Island, New York.
Earlier, King had condemned Boehner’s adjournment of the House before the Sandy vote, saying on the House floor the inaction was “a knife in the back.”
Sandy, the second-costliest storm in U.S. history, devastated the northeastern United States on Oct. 29, smashing New York and New Jersey coastal communities.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, seen as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016, said the vote’s cancellation reflected the “toxic internal politics” of House Republicans.
“There is only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent (storm) victims - the House majority and the speaker, John Boehner,” Christie told a news conference in Trenton, New Jersey.
“It is why the American people hate Congress,” he added.
Christie tried to telephone Boehner four times after 11:20 p.m, when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told him the vote was canceled. The speaker declined to take his calls, the governor said.
President Barack Obama also made a last-minute overture to Republicans to pass the plan and spoke to both Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo by telephone.
Angry New York and New Jersey lawmakers said the House delay marked a stark contrast to congressional reaction to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Then, a Republican-controlled Congress swiftly approved $62.3 billion in aid just 10 days after the storm devastated the Gulf Coast.
Local officials in battered coastal Long Island communities complained on Wednesday that they could not launch rebuilding projects without knowing aid funds were on the way.
Recreation and senior centers are closed and boardwalks splintered in Long Beach, New York, where $250 million in estimated repair costs far exceed the city’s $88 million annual budget.
“We need Congress to pass the bill. That’s how we’re going to rebuild,” said Long Beach spokesman Gordon Tepper.
After reversing course on Wednesday afternoon, Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in a joint statement: “Getting critical aid to the victims of Hurricane Sandy should be the first priority in the new Congress, and that was reaffirmed today with members of the New York and New Jersey delegations.”
NOT A GOOD TIME
Boehner had called off the vote on aid after the House passed a budget deal.
But critics complained Boehner should have allowed the House to give final approval to the Senate-passed Sandy rescue package before the current Congress officially ended on Thursday, causing all pending legislation to expire.
Explaining the adjournment without a vote, a Boehner aide said it “was not a good time” to vote on $60 billion in relief spending as Congress dealt with the broad tax measure, which had few spending cuts.
With Boehner facing an internal House Republican leadership re-election on Thursday after a majority of his party members voted against the “fiscal cliff” deal, some Republican lawmakers said a massive, $60-billion spending bill would have been too much to handle.
“It was a horrendous day with some horrific votes that a lot of our conference was very unhappy with,” said Michael Grimm, a Republican from hard-hit Staten Island, New York.
Grimm and other New York and New Jersey Republican congressmen said they were satisfied with Boehner’s new plan and would support his bid for another term as House speaker.
Even King said late in the day that his earlier vitriol “seems like a lifetime ago.”
But the new plan could still see some Republicans trying to shrink the aid package, as the $51 billion portion may be split into two parts - one for initial needs and another for longer-term projects. Fewer Republicans are likely to support the longer-term funds, but Democrats gained eight seats in the new Congress in November’s elections.
Many House Republicans had complained that the Sandy aid bill was loaded with spending on projects unrelated to storm damage or long-term projects that needed more scrutiny.
Among expenditures criticized in the Senate plan were $150 million to rebuild fisheries, including those in the Gulf Coast and Alaska, and $2 million to repair roof damage at the Smithsonian Institution buildings in Washington that pre-dates the storm.