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Washington (AFP) Jan 2, 2013
A chastened US House Republican leadership scrambled Wednesday to tamp down seething bipartisan fury over a failure to approve emergency relief for victims of superstorm Sandy, saying a vote will now occur Friday.
The Senate has already passed a $60.4 billion aid package put forward by the White House to help northeast US states still reeling in the wake of the killer late October storm, which destroyed tens of thousands of homes and businesses and pummeled critical infrastructure.
But, in the lower House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner, still smarting from battle with Democratic President Barack Obama over "fiscal cliff" budget negotiations, signaled there would be no vote in the closing days of the outgoing Congress.
Boehner's move sparked rage and indignation from figures in both parties, prompting the Republican speaker to announce a two-stage vote on Sandy relief -- on Friday and again on January 15.
"Getting critical aid to the victims of Hurricane Sandy should be the first priority in the new Congress," Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in a joint statement.
Earlier, Obama and New Jersey's outspoken Republican Governor Chris Christie led the charge against Boehner's refusal to act more quickly.
Our "citizens are still trying to put their lives back together. Our states are still trying to rebuild vital infrastructure," Obama said in a statement.
"The House of Representatives has refused to act, even as there are families and communities who still need our help," Obama said, urging Republicans to swiftly bring the aid package to a vote.
Christie and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo of neighboring New York issued a harsh joint statement, calling the House's failure to come to the aid of devastated Americans "inexcusable."
"When American citizens are in need we come to their aid," they said.
"That tradition was abandoned in the House last night."
Hours later, in front of the television cameras, Christie went nuclear.
"It's absolutely disgraceful," he boomed.
"In this current atmosphere everything is the subject of one-upmanship, everything is... a potential piece of bait for the political game," Christie said.
"It is why the American people hate Congress."
Republicans who postpone the disaster aid should prepare to feel the wrath of politicians in the storm-battered northeast, Christie continued.
"Governor Cuomo and I are not wallflowers. We are not shrinking violets."
Since the relief bill will now come to the floor after Thursday, when the incoming Congress is sworn in, new legislation will have to be crafted and voted on in both chambers.
Fuming Republican congressman Peter King of New York tore into his own leadership, saying New Yorkers would be "out of their minds" if they contributed any money to congressional Republicans now.
"What they did last night was put a knife in the back of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans," he told Fox News.
Later Wednesday, he and other members met with Boehner, and a calmer King explained that the House would vote Friday on $9 billion in flood insurance for storm-hit states -- plans confirmed by Boehner.
"On January 15th, which is the first legislative day, we will vote on the remaining $51 billion, which is required, we believe, for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut," King said.
Some senators including Marco Rubio from Florida, a hurricane-prone state which has received billions in federal disaster aid, voted against the Sandy bill, claiming it was stuffed with "pork" -- funding for projects or elements unrelated to Sandy relief. But it eventually passed 62-32.
Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York said he was "infuriated" with comments by Republicans like California's Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, who said pork is what delayed the House bill.
"I'd like Darrell Issa to sit eye to eye with a homeowner who has lost their home and their life, and tell that homeowner to his face that that's pork," Schumer told a news conference in New York.
He described the delay as the "Boehner betrayal," but later said he was pleased that the speaker was bringing the two votes to the floor.
"We gave relief to Katrina within a week," Schumer said in reference to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.
"We are now two and a half months away from when Sandy hit and there is still no relief for New York."
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