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House passes $50.5 billion in Sandy aid, Republicans trim items

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives on Tuesday approved $50.5 billion in long-delayed federal disaster aid to victims of Superstorm Sandy, but not before Republicans flexed their budget-cutting muscle to strike some spending provisions.

The aid package for the storm that ravaged New York and New Jersey coastlines now moves to the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it is expected to win swift passage.

The legislation had been tied up for weeks in the House amid congressional brawling over U.S. deficit reduction, spending and taxes in the New Year's new fiscal drama.

And surprisingly stiff opposition from Republicans in the 241-180 vote foreshadows a tough road ahead for winning House approval of future budget deals over the debt limit and other looming fiscal deadlines.

East Coast politicians abandoned their recently frustrated tone and expressed relief at the House vote.

"The tradition of Congress of being there and providing support for Americans in times of crisis, no matter where they live across this great country, lives on in today's vote in the House of Representatives," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, said in a joint statement.

The House approved the aid in two parts - $17 billion in funds to cover immediate disaster relief needs and $33.5 billion in longer-term reconstruction funds. The longer-term funds drew more opposition from House Republicans who saw it as loaded with spending that was unnecessary or that would take years to occur.

Republicans managed to whittle the package down slightly by eliminating $150 million in National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant money as well as striking $9.8 million for rebuilding seawalls and buildings on uninhabited islands in a Connecticut wildlife reserve.

The House defeated a Republican attempt to require $17 billion in across-the-board spending cuts for fiscal 2013 to pay for part of the aid package.

Republican Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, reflecting strong desire in his party to force spending cuts after accepting higher tax rates on the wealthy, said he did not want to fund the aid with borrowed money.

"It is important to me that this money goes to the folks that need it very badly. It's so important to me that we should pay for it," Mulvaney said in debate on the House floor.

The vote follows Congress' January 4 passage of $9.7 billion in initial funds to keep the National Flood Insurance Program solvent and to pay homeowners' flood claims from Sandy. The funds approved on Tuesday bring total House-approved Sandy aid to $60.2 billion, just shy of earlier proposals.

But the bulk of the federal aid for victims of the October 29 storm that killed more than 130 people and destroyed thousands of homes was tied up in controversy.

CANCELED VOTE

House Speaker John Boehner infuriated New York and New Jersey politicians on January 1 when he canceled a vote for a previous, Senate-passed $60.4 billion version of the legislation amid Republican angst over accepting higher tax rates on the wealthy in a deal to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.

The move prompted howls of protest that the largely Democratic East Coast states were being treated much more harshly than the Gulf Coast states that suffered massively from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Just 10 days after that storm, Congress had approved $62 billion in federal disaster aid.

It was clear from House floor debate and public statements that these lawmakers were still steamed about the wait, which they said has delayed reconstruction work.

"The families affected by Sandy are in their hour of need. They have waited far too long for this institution to act," said Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat.

Noting the current "precarious fiscal times," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers said the panel had given the legislation "a good scrub and we have adjusted funding levels to make the best use of taxpayer dollars."

Among these changes were elimination of funds for damaged fisheries in Alaska and on the Gulf Coast, as well as cutting funding for other disasters such as western U.S. wildfires.

Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, in an opinion piece in the Washington Times, asked whether the bar for disaster funding was continually being lowered.

"As we continue to borrow more than 30 cents on the dollar, much of it from the Chinese, can and should the federal government continue to fund the restoration of private homes, businesses and automobiles?" Hensarling wrote.

(Additional reporting Ian Simpson, Hilary Russ and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Mohammad Zargham, Jackie Frank and Philip Barbara)

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