Congress to Vote on Sandy Disaster Funding

By Evan Lehmann, E&E reporter
1/3/2013 12:52:22 PM

House leaders, facing a barrage of name-calling from angry Northeast Republicans yesterday, promised that an initial emergency package for Superstorm Sandy survivors would receive a vote tomorrow.

Boehner. Photo by Gage Skidmore

The decision commits the chamber to a package of $60 billion for rebuilding after the October storm, beginning with $9 billion in expanded borrowing authority for the National Flood Insurance Program, which is close to depleting its funds used to pay claims.

The House will speed into that vote tomorrow under suspension of the rules, usually reserved for uncontroversial bills, and then cast votes on two other measures amounting to $18 billion and $33 billion on Jan. 15, the House's first legislative day of the 113th Congress, according to lawmakers.

The parlay comes less than 24 hours after Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) scrapped plans to pass a disaster spending bill in the twilight hours of the two-year congressional session ending today, igniting a ferocious bipartisan backlash. Republicans talked openly of being betrayed and plotting a withering public relations assault against their topmost leader.

"Listen, we got the results," said an unapologetic Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who proposed boycotting Republican fundraising efforts hours before Boehner made his offer. "Bottom line, that's all that counts."

The brokered peace didn't come soon enough to head off an angry attack on Boehner by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who described the highest ranking member of his own party as a deceitful manipulator.

"Shame on you. Shame on Congress," Christie said yesterday at a news conference. "It's absolutely disgraceful, and I have to tell you, this used to be something that was not political. Disaster relief was something you didn't play games with."

He added that the funding is "bait for the political game," and that is "why the American people hate Congress."

King, whose outbursts before the treaty rose to a rare level of intraparty combat, indicated that Christie's private comments about Boehner exceeded the public lashing he gave the speaker. During a 20-minute phone call at 1 a.m. yesterday, King said the governor used "obscene" language to describe Boehner.

"He was, ah ... he was, ah ... he was energized," King said.

"This is a very intense time," he added. "Obviously a lot happened. Emotions run high. Bottom line is we're getting what we want. To an extent, talking about it is good theater. But the reality is people are out of their homes and really suffering. And we're going to take care of them, so that's what really counts."

Flood program running low on cash

Boehner's decision to delay the vote until the next Congress nullifies the Senate's passage of a $60 billion rebuilding package last Friday. It also underscores the growing difficulty of paying for large disasters that strike increasingly developed regions of the United States, while revealing weaknesses in state building codes and resilient infrastructure planning, many experts say.

"If you want to change the rules on how to deal with these things, don't do it while New Jersey has an emergency," Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) said after meeting with Boehner and other lawmakers from New Jersey and New York yesterday afternoon. "You bring up a bill and talk about how we're going to deal with disasters when nobody's in the middle of one."

He expressed satisfaction with the speaker's spending plan, noting that he wasn't sure before the meeting whether it was called to discipline him, King and other "bad boys" who had spoken out, or to propose a truce.

"It was a straightforward commitment from the speaker and majority leader," he said.

It is unclear how long the National Flood Insurance Program, which expects to pay $6 billion to $12 billion in Sandy claims, can continue writing checks to homeowners without congressional approval for additional borrowing. If the House approves the measure tomorrow, it could then move to the Senate for consideration.

"We know it's not long," James Grande, senior vice president of federal affairs at the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, said of the program's ability to pay claims. "Whether it's three weeks or four weeks or five weeks, it's certainly too close for comfort."

He and others, however, don't expect the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the program, to begin notifying contracted insurers that claims could go unpaid. That might slow the process of adjusting claims for homeowners even if the program never runs out of money.

"People have paid for flood insurance, and I don't think it's even thinkable that NFIP doesn't get the money" from Congress, said Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank that specializes in insurance issues.

Still, he said lawmakers should pare back the borrowing authority from $9 billion and require the flood program to buy private reinsurance to cover damages from future disasters.

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500. E&E Publishing is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy issues. Click here to start a free trial to E&E's information services.

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