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U.S. House speaker says still committed to Sandy aid

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 2 Jan 2013 18:58 GMT
Author: Reuters
Reuters
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* House speaker to meet GOP lawmakers on Sandy bill -aide

* Representative calls House inaction "knife in the back"

* President Obama urges passage on Wednesday; timing unclear

By Ian Simpson and David Lawder

WASHINGTON, Jan 2 (Reuters) - U.S. House Speaker John Boehner insisted on Wednesday he is committed to passing a Superstorm Sandy disaster aid bill this month after his decision to deny a vote on the package drew scathing criticism from East Coast lawmakers and governors.

President Barack Obama urged House Republicans to pass the ${esc.dollar}60.4 billion measure on Wednesday before the current Congress ends at noon on Thursday and pending legislation expires.

The Republican-controlled House adjourned late on Tuesday without voting on the relief bill after it approved a "fiscal cliff" budget deal that sidestepped stiff tax hikes and deep spending cuts.

Failure to vote on the Sandy measure was widely condemned by lawmakers from affected states. Republican Representative Peter King of New York told CNN it was a "knife in the back."

However, Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said in an email that "The Speaker is committed to getting this bill passed this month."

An aide to Boehner also said the speaker would meet on Wednesday afternoon with Republican lawmakers from New York and New Jersey, the states hardest hit by the Oct. 29 storm.

Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has told the lawmakers he will make a Sandy relief bill his first priority in the new Congress, which will be sworn in on Thursday, the aide said.

Explaining the adjournment without a vote, he said it "was not a good time" to vote on ${esc.dollar}60 billion in relief spending as Congress dealt with the broad tax measure, which had few spending cuts.

Many Republicans complained the Sandy aid bill was loaded with "pork," billions of dollars in spending on projects unrelated to damage from the storm or long-term infrastructure improvements.

Among expenditures criticized were ${esc.dollar}150 million to rebuild fisheries, including those in the Gulf Coast and Alaska, and ${esc.dollar}2 million to repair roof damage that pre-dates the storm on Smithsonian Institution buildings in Washington.

By waiting until the new Congress convenes, the House would have more control over a fresh piece of legislation, and chances are greater that a smaller initial bill to handle immediate disaster needs would be passed and sent to the Senate.

Before Boehner pulled the plug on the Sandy vote late on Tuesday night, Republicans had planned to split the bill into two parts to accommodate party demands for a smaller bill. This would have included ${esc.dollar}27 billion for more immediate needs and ${esc.dollar}33 billion for longer-term projects.

'DERELICTION OF DUTY'

The storm devastated the New York and New Jersey coastlines with lesser damage to Delaware and Maryland. The Senate approved a full aid package last week.

King and other Republicans complained that Boehner pulled the bill while the speaker's top lieutenant, House Republican Leader Eric Cantor, had tried to get action on it.

"We'd done everything we'd been asked to do and then, the knife in the back. That's all it is," King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told CNN.

Failure to pass the measure could damage Republican Party fundraising in New Jersey and New York, he warned.

"This should not be a Republican or Democratic issue. But if these guys want to use New York and New Jersey as cash cows for themselves, then they should realize those days could be over," he said.

In a joint statement, Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, and Republican Chris Christie of New Jersey called the House's failure a "dereliction of duty."

Cuomo and Christie last month had personally lobbied Congress for passage of a relief bill that was even larger, at about ${esc.dollar}82 billion.

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