Backlash follows House delay on Sandy relief vote

Liz Goodwin
The Ticket

After a late-night decision from House Republicans to delay a vote to provide billions of dollars in relief to states hardest hit by Superstorm Sandy, House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday attempted to tamp down a backlash, telling colleagues he would bring up one part of the aid package to a vote at the end of the week. New Jersey and New York Republicans said Wednesday afternoon that Boehner promised them he will vote on a $10 billion extension for the government's flood insurance fund—set to run out next week—on Friday.

The speaker said he will bring the other $51 billion in aid to a vote January 15.

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican, blasted Boehner earlier on Wednesday for not putting the bill up to a vote. Christie warned Boehner and the Republican House majority that they would feel the wrath of outspoken New Jersey and New York politicians.

New York "Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo and I are not wallflowers. We are not shrinking violets," Christie said. He called the delay in aid "callous" and an act of putting politics over what's best for the victims of a major storm trying to rebuild.

"All I can tell you is that this was the speaker's decision. His alone," Christie said, adding that Boehner did not take several of his calls Tuesday night.

Some Republicans have expressed reservations about money in the aid package that did not go directly to relief efforts and questioned why the bill needed to be passed quickly when Congress was also dealing with the "fiscal cliff" and other issues. It seemed on Tuesday that Congressmen from the Northeast and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor had hammered out a deal to split the aid bill up into two parts, but then Boehner unexpectedly declined to bring it up for a vote.

"It's a Boehner betrayal," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democrat from New York.

But Republicans from the Northeast were also mad. On the House floor, Rep. Peter King, a Republican from storm-ravaged Long Island, N.Y., blasted the delay as "indefensible" and said Congress had a "moral obligation" to hold the vote. On Wednesday, he urged New Yorkers to withhold all donations to congressional Republicans in an appearance on Fox News, apparently so hopping mad about the delay that he doesn't mind turning on his own party.

"I’m saying right now: Anyone from New York or New Jersey who contributes one penny to congressional Republicans is out of their minds," King said. He even hinted he might jump ship from the Republican Party altogether if they didn't vote soon.

By Wednesday afternoon, his tone had softened after Boehner promised to vote on the $9 billion in aid on Friday and an additional $51 billion by Jan. 15.

Democrats have singled out Boehner for the delay, but also blasted other Republicans for their criticisms of the bill. Schumer said in a press conference on Wednesday that he was "infuriated" by a comment from Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, who said the bill didn't move in the House because it was filled with pork. Schumer said Issa should speak to one of the hundreds of thousands of homeowners who need help repairing their homes and will now face a delay in getting relief.

"Tell that homeowner to his face ... that it's pork," Schumer said. He added that Issa would surely not want to face such a delay if an earthquake hit his home state: "I know he wouldn't say the same thing about California."

President Barack Obama also urged action on the bill on Wednesday in a statement.

Some congressional Republicans have said the $60 billion bill, which had already passed in the Senate, is too expensive and does not provide enough oversight for how the funds are spent—and that there is no real need to pass it quickly. The bill contains $11.5 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund, $17 billion for community grants that help businesses and homeowners with rebuilding and repairs, and $9.7 billion in government flood insurance. An additional $11.7 billion would go to fixing damaged mass transit systems and $5.3 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent future flooding.

"FEMA has plenty of money, there's no immediate needs," House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, told CNN on Tuesday. "FEMA has enough money to last until at least late February-March."

Schumer rejected the idea that the relief bill was not urgent, even though FEMA is adequately funded for now. On Wednesday he said flood insurance funds are set to run out next week and that many homeowners are facing more than $100,000 in damage, making the $32,000 FEMA maximum grant inadequate. Some homeowners can't sign repair contracts or get loans before they know the $17 billion in homeowner relief will actually be provided by the government, Schumer added.

The October storm left more than 100 people dead and devastated parts of the Northeast, including New York City. In his press conference, Christie said the current 66-day wait for the federal aid package is longer than those faced by victims of Hurricanes Ike, Katrina, Andrew and Gustav.

The backlash is also a reminder that feisty tri-state area politicians do not hold back their anger. James Molinaro, the borough president of hard-hit Staten Island, told Yahoo News the delay is "unconscionable" for the people in his borough who live in one of the island's 20,000 damaged or destroyed homes. "It's just plain stupid, and it's something that it's tough to understand how the United States runs to the aid of countries all over the world when there's a tragedy … and with their own people, they question it."