Washington - US lawmakers finally approved emergency disaster aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy on Friday, but only after a delay that sparked East Coast Republican outrage against their own party leadership.
Lawmakers voted 354-67 to provide the Federal Emergency Management Agency with $9.7bn to pay the flood insurance claims of thousands of victims of the killer October storm that devastated coastal communities.
The bill now goes to the US Senate, where it could pass as early as Friday before the two chambers go into recess, but the sum falls short of what was originally promised and bitter debate is likely top continue.
The Senate had approved a comprehensive $60.4bn Sandy aid package last week, but House Speaker John Boehner, stung by fractious negotiations over the deal to avert the fiscal cliff crisis, refused to bring it to the floor.
"It's been 70 days and many have been living in misery and heartache," Republican congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey told the House, describing the vote as "the first step of what we need to do to rebuild lives."
Democrats again attacked the Republican leadership for what congressman Rob Andrews of New Jersey called the "inexcusable and unjust" delay in getting a bill to the House floor.
And, while Boehner has pledged to bring the remaining $51bn in aid to a vote on January 15 as a two-part package, Andrews said it would be "meaningless" unless the Senate turned around and quickly approved the aid.
Boehner had scrambled to tamp down fury over the delay on aid to victims of the storm, which killed 120 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes and businesses in New York, New Jersey and neighbouring northeastern states.
President Barack Obama, instrumental in cobbling together the $60bn package, joined New Jersey's outspoken Republican Governor Chris Christie in leading the charge against Boehner's delay.
Christie offered a blistering critique of his own party's congressional leadership, calling Boehner's delay "absolutely disgraceful."
Fuming Republican congressman Peter King of New York also tore into his own leadership, saying the delay was "a knife in the back of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans."
The outrage quickly gained the national spotlight, and Boehner wasted little time announcing the two-part vote.
"This is not a handout, this is not something we're looking for as a favor," King told the House. "What we're asking for is to be treated the same as victims (from) other natural disaster victims have been treated."
Some Republicans including Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, a hurricane-prone state which has received billions in federal disaster aid, voted against the Sandy bill in the Senate, claiming it was stuffed with "pork" - funding for projects or elements unrelated to Sandy relief.
Darrell Issa, the powerful Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, continued in that vein Friday, saying "we need to get the pork out" and pointing to funding in the Senate bill that went to programs in Alaska, more than 3 000 miles (4 800 kilometers) from the Sandy disaster zone.
He said he was hopeful the re-written legislation due for a vote January 15 would be a "clean bill" focused exclusively on Sandy relief.
"I believe today we are buying a little bit of time, but for the people on the Eastern Seaboard who are suffering, time is running out," he said.
FEMA has announced it will soon run out of flood insurance funding without the $9.7bn increase.
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