By MALIA RULON HERMAN, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- More than two months after Hurricane Sandy began pounding New York and New Jersey, Congress approved $9.7 billion on Friday to pay flood insurance claims related to the storm.
The House vote was 354-67, with all the "no" votes coming from Republicans. The Senate later approved the money by voice vote, sending the bill to President Barack Obama for signing.
Northeast lawmakers hope the $9.7 billion is just the first installment toward a total $60 billion in federal assistance for victims of the storm. The House is expected to consider the remaining funds in two parts on Jan. 15.
This bill is a first step," Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said before the Senate vote. "It's the easiest part. The hard stuff is still ahead of us."
The flood insurance money is urgently needed because the National Flood Insurance Program will run out of money by Monday unless Congress approves additional borrowing authority, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said.
Nearly 140,000 flooding claims related to Sandy have been filed so far, and $1.7 billion has been paid out. A delay in action by Congress would delay payments on more than 115,000 claims, according to FEMA.
The Senate voted last week, during the 112th Congress, to approve $60.4 billion in disaster relief for Sandy victims, but that vote became void when the 113th Congress took office at noon on Thursday.
Lawmakers from New Jersey and New York had pushed for the House to approve the Senate bill earlier in the week in order to avoid starting over.
They were incensed when House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio delayed a vote on the measure. After enduring withering criticism for the decision, Boehner announced Friday's vote and the promise of further action on Jan. 15.
Democrats again decried the delay on Friday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada recalled that lawmakers rallied "within days" to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"We are now past two months," he said of the congressional response to Sandy.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York said the delays in acting on aid for Sandy victims made him "the angriest I have been since I was a member of Congress."
New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone called Friday's House action "too little and too late."
Democratic Rep. Rob Andrews of New Jersey called it "inexcusable and unjust" and urged House leaders to pre-negotiate a bill that could pass both chambers quickly.
"The House taking up the bill on January 15th is lovely. It is also utterly meaningless if the other body does not act," he said.
Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland said he voted against the bill approved Friday because it would raise the National Flood Insurance Program's borrowing limit without a plan to pay for it -- and without reforms to safeguard the program for the future.
"Instead of writing another blank check, we should have used this bill as an opportunity to strengthen the program to protect people from future floods that we know will come," he said.
Republican Rep. Scott Garrett of New Jersey, who voted for the bill, said Sandy victims have been getting their flood insurance claims paid.
"We are just here today to make sure that those payments continue going forward," he said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said about 55,800 flood insurance claims had been received from New York through Jan. 3, and more than $956 million had been paid in settlements.
In New Jersey, more than 346,000 housing units were damaged or destroyed in the storm. A total 72,397 claims have been filed by homeowners covered by the National Flood Insurance Program, said Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey.
"Thus far, only 18 percent have received funds pursuant to their claims," he said. "Over 80 percent of my constituents who have filed claims are waiting in limbo and in an intolerable situation that is making a bad situation worse."