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Washington (AFP) Jan 28, 2013
Congress on Monday finally approved more than $50 billion in emergency disaster aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy, 13 weeks after the superstorm ravaged much of the coastal US northeast and left thousands homeless.
The bill, approved earlier this month by the House, comes after a nearly month-long delay triggered bipartisan rage that Republican lawmakers were politicizing relief funding and seeking to offset the costly legislation with federal spending cuts at a time of crisis for thousands of Americans.
The $50.5 billion in immediate and short-term funding forms the bulk of the $60.2 billion in total aid approved by Congress for victims of the storm, which killed 120 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes and businesses, with the bulk of the damage occurring in New Jersey and New York.
A $9.7 billion tranche providing emergency flood relief funding was approved earlier in January.
Monday's relief bill, which needed to surpass a 60-vote threshold, passed 62-36 and now goes to President Barack Obama, who pledged to sign the measure and said he was "pleased" Congress approved the funding.
"For the families working to put their lives back together, every day without relief is one day too many," Obama said in a recognition of the painful delays that have marked the relief process.
"So while I had hoped Congress would provide this aid sooner, I applaud the lawmakers from both parties who helped shepherd this important package though."
Lawmakers pressing for Sandy relief have routinely pointed to the speed at which Congress approved some $60 billion in hurricane relief just 11 days after Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in 2005.
It has been "91 days since we have been languishing, waiting for our government to respond to the critical issues, life-and-death situations of fellow Americans," an exasperated Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey told the chamber minutes before the Sandy vote.
Frustration among lawmakers and state officials in the northeast boiled over in late December, when the US House failed to take up a Senate-passed Sandy supplemental bill before the 112th Congress came to an end, meaning emergency relief legislation had to start from scratch this month in the 113th Congress.
The senators easily defeated an amendment to Monday's bill that had sought to offset billions of dollars in hurricane relief costs with federal spending cuts.
Among the Republicans voting for the amendment was Senator Rand Paul, who said he wanted to assist Sandy victims but believed "this bill lacked any fiscal restraint or responsibility" and would add billions of dollars to the debt.
"We can help those in need, but we should do so providing them with only the resources they need today and prioritizing this funding by reducing spending elsewhere," he said.
Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, where fisheries were hit by the storm, snapped at such logic.
While there was "plenty of money to rebuild Iraq, now we're nickel-and-diming over rebuilding New York, New York and Connecticut and parts of little old Maryland," she fumed.
There was widespread relief after the Senate passed its latest measure, including from northeastern governors who expressed gratitude to lawmakers "despite the difficult path in getting to this moment."
The Senate "clearly recognized early on the urgency and necessity of approving the full aid package and its importance in rebuilding our battered infrastructure and getting our millions of affected residents back on their feet as quickly as possible," governors Andrew Cuomo of New York, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Dannel Malloy of Connecticut said in a statement.
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