WASHINGTON - With the Federal Emergency Management Agency nearly broke, Congress last week approved legislation that will allow it to borrow up to $9.7 billion to make good on flood insurance claims from Hurricane Sandy.
The legislation was the first taken up by the 113th Congress and represents just a portion of a larger $60.4 billion relief package that lawmakers from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are seeking.
The larger bill cleared the Senate a week ago, 62-32, but was not taken up by the House before the 112th Congress gaveled to a close. Loud complaints from Republican leaders in the Northeast put Sandy relief at the top of the agenda for the 113th Congress.
House Speaker John Boehner divided the larger bill into three pieces and brought the $9.7 billion FEMA bill up for a vote on Friday. He has indicated that the House will vote on the remaining $50 billion in relief later this month.
The bill cleared the House, 354-67, and was swiftly approved in the Senate by voice without objection. Some House Republicans grudgingly supported the bill saying the federal government has a contractual obligation to pay flood claims but Congress should not do so by adding to the federal debt.
“Emergency bills like this should not come to the floor without (spending) offsets,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., defended the bill as vital and urged his colleagues to support Hurricane Sandy victims as they have the victims of other natural disasters.
Reps. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, and Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, voted in favor. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, opposed it.
House freezes pay
The House voted essentially along party lines to extend a freeze on federal salaries through the end of the fiscal year.
The freeze for some 2 million federal employees — including members of Congress — would extend through September. Two Republicans from northern Virginia opposed it, saying federal employees deserve at least a small raise after two years without one.
“It’s time for members of both parties to stop attacking our Nation’s hardworking civil servants,” said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.
Rep. Darryl Issa, R-Calif., argued that across-the-board pay increases are not justified given the state of the economy and the federal debt.
“When the American people are not getting automatic cost-of-living increases, neither should the federal workforce,” Issa said.
Womack, Griffin, Crawford, and Rep. Mike Ross, D-Prescott, voted for the freeze.
Congress avoids ‘fiscal cliff’
In the early morning of New Year’s Day, the Senate voted for legislation that sought to avert a “fiscal cliff” of automatic spending cuts and tax hikes set for 2013. The House followed suit that evening.
The legislation made permanent Bush-era income tax cuts that were to have expired with the exception of those for families making over $450,000. It also put off for two months $109 billion in automatic spending cuts, extended long-term unemployment benefits for 2 million people and maintained farm subsidies for the short term.
Lawmakers approved the deal that had been negotiated with the White House, saying that to do otherwise risked sending the economy back into recession. Opponents included Democrats, who wanted more focus on helping middle class families, and Republicans disappointed that it did not include deep spending cuts.
The Senate approved the bill, 89-8. Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and John Boozman, R-Ark., voted in favor.
The House passed the bill, 257-167. Ross and Womack voted in favor. Griffin and Crawford opposed it.