Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Congress 'ignored aid deal for storm victims' in scramble over fiscal cliff

The fiscal-cliff deal might have protected the US economy from another blow, but the last-minute agreement has left storm-hit communities in the north-east without billions of dollars in promised aid after special measures put together following Hurricane Sandy were shelved by Congress.

The House of Representatives had been expected to vote on some $60bn (£37bn) worth of recovery and reconstruction cash after giving its nod to the fiscal-cliff agreement hammered out in the Senate.

But with the tax and spending package not arriving on the floor of the lower chamber until late on Tuesday, the Republican leadership, led by the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, decided to drop plans for one last vote, sparking anger and criticism from lawmakers who represent the hard-hit region.

"This is an absolute disgrace and the Speaker should hang his head in shame," said Eliot Engel, a Democrat who represents New York in the House, according to the Associated Press.

Chris Christie, the Republican Governor of New Jersey, which was deeply scarred by the storm, blamed Mr Boehner for the House's failure to vote on the measures. "There is only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent [storm] victims - the House majority, and their Speaker," he told a press conference yesterday. "We respond to innocent victims of natural disasters, not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Americans. Or at least we did until last night."

Instead of voting on the Sandy relief law, a version of which had been approved by the Senate last week, they decided to adjourn.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama called for House Republicans to vote on the Sandy aid "without delay". However, bills not passed in the previous session do not carry over, meaning that, save an 11th-hour change of heart on the part of the Republican leadership, the Sandy aid measure will have to be reconsidered anew by both houses of Congress.

Although some have criticised the Republican leadership for seemingly sacrificing the Sandy bill for the sake of a belated new-year break after taking the budget negotiations down to - and then briefly beyond - the wire, it actually appears to have been shelved because of the delay in spending cuts agreed as part of the budget deal.

Republicans were not happy with the move to put off more than $100bn of cuts for two months. Most voted against the deal, and the fiscal-cliff agreement found passage only after the Speaker decided to do away with a long-standing Republican requirement that the deal could come to the floor of the House only if it had the backing of a majority of Republicans.

As a result, the party leadership decided it didn't make sense to ask their colleagues to consider another law that would, had it been approved, clear the way for an additional $60bn in government spending.

Although the disaster-relief fund maintained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) still has a balance of some $4bn, that can be used only for emergency services.

The House had been due to consider a bill in two parts: the first, worth about $27bn, would, among other things, have bolstered the Fema fund, while a planned amendment worth about $33bn would have freed money for upgrading infrastructure and preparing for future storms.

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