House Speaker John Boehner made a U-turn on Wednesday to clear the way for approval of $60 billion in Superstorm Sandy relief by mid-January after drawing withering fire from fellow Republicans, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for canceling an earlier vote.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives will now vote on Friday on a $9 billion down payment for storm-related aid to the National Flood Insurance program. Boehner also assured New York and New Jersey lawmakers that the House will take a second vote on January 15 on the $51 billion remainder of the Sandy package.
"This procedure that was laid out is fully acceptable and fully satisfactory. It provides the full $60 billion that we require," said Representative Peter King, a high-ranking House Republican from Long Island, New York.
King had earlier condemned Boehner's adjournment of the House before the Sandy vote, telling CNN it was a "knife in the back." Sandy, the second-costliest storm in U.S. history, devastated the northeastern United States on October 29, with New York and New Jersey hardest hit.
Christie, seen as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016, said the vote's cancellation reflected the "toxic internal politics" of Republicans in the House. "There is only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent (storm) victims - the House majority and the speaker, John Boehner," Christie told a news conference in Trenton, New Jersey.
Christie tried to telephone Boehner four times after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told him at 11:20 p.m. the vote was canceled. The speaker declined to take his calls, the governor said. President Obama also urged House Republicans to vote on the Sandy package on Wednesday.
In a joint statement issued on Wednesday afternoon, Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said, "Getting critical aid to the victims of Hurricane Sandy should be the first priority in the new Congress, and that was reaffirmed today with members of the New York and New Jersey delegations."
SANDY AID LARDED WITH PORK
Boehner had called off a vote on aid to victims of the storm after the House passed a budget deal that sidestepped stiff tax hikes and deep spending cuts. But critics complained Boehner should have allowed the House to give final approval to a pending Senate-passed package before the current Congress officially came to an end on Thursday.
Explaining the adjournment without a vote, a Boehner aide said it "was not a good time" to vote on $60 billion in relief spending as Congress dealt with the broad tax measure, which had few spending cuts. Many Republicans complained the Sandy aid bill was loaded with spending on projects unrelated to storm damage or long-term infrastructure improvements.
Among expenditures criticized were $150 million to rebuild fisheries, including those in the Gulf Coast and Alaska, and $2 million to repair roof damage that pre-dates the storm on Smithsonian Institution buildings in Washington.
Before Boehner pulled the plug on the Sandy vote, Republicans had planned to split the measure into two parts to accommodate party demands for a smaller bill. This would have included $27 billion for immediate needs and $33 billion for longer-term projects.
In a joint statement, Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, and Christie called the House's failure a "dereliction of duty."
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Hilary Russ and Tom Ferraro of Reuters)