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U.S. Senate passes bill to delay hikes in flood insurance rates

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a rare act of bipartisanship, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill on Thursday to delay dramatic increases in federal flood insurance premiums for millions of Americans.

On a vote of 67-32, the Democratic-led Senate brushed aside earlier White House concerns and sent the measure to the Republican-led House of Representatives for consideration.

Backers of the bill warn that unless premium hikes of up to 10 fold and more are delayed, many Americans will be forced to surrender their homes and small businesses because they cannot afford coverage.

That, in turn, would drive down property values and hurt the U.S. economy.

With so much at stake, normally warring Senate Democrats and Republicans came together to draft and then approve the bill.

"This is how the Senate is suppose to work," said Senator Charles Schumer of New York, a member of Democratic leadership.

Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia joined Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey as chief sponsors of the legislation, the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act.

It would delay rate hikes for four years while the Federal Emergency Management Agency drafts a plan to make premiums affordable and re-evaluates the accuracy of its maps of what it considers flood-prone areas.

Opponents argue that a delay would undermine the National Flood Insurance Program, which serves about 5 million people and is $24 billion in debt.

The White House echoed those concerns in a statement on Monday.

The next day, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a sponsor of the bill, dismissed the White House statement on the Senate floor, calling it "misinformed" and "misguided."

Afterward, the White House quietly walked back its criticism, and helped rally support for the bill, Senate aides said.

The bill was drafted in response to the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, which was designed to allow premiums to rise to reflect the true risk of living in high-flood areas.

The 2012 law did not stipulate that rates would soar up to 10 fold and more, but that is what happened to the surprise of lawmakers and consternation of homeowners and small businesses.

House Speaker John Boehner has said that he opposes repealing the 2012 law, but that the House may consider changes to help homeowners and protect taxpayers.

Menendez voiced hope that Boehner would embrace the Senate bill, noting that the House version of the measure has 181 sponsors, 55 of them Republicans.

"We hope that he will agree with us that it is the right action for families who could lose their homes due to crushing flood insurance premiums," Menendez said.

(Reporting By Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Tom Brown)

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