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Victims of Hurricane Sandy are one step closer to getting a major infusion of federal disaster aid after a long delay. Last night, the House approved a $50 billion assistance package.
NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith reports.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Funding disaster relief is supposed to be one of the easier things Congress does. Not this time around. Late last year, the Senate approved a Sandy relief package, only to see it die in the House with the start of the new Congress. The criticism, especially from New York and New Jersey Republicans was fast and fierce. House speaker John Boehner quickly promised to revive the measure and he followed through yesterday.
New Jersey Republican Frank LoBiondo still seemed raw when he spoke in favor of the bill on the House floor.
REPRESENTATIVE FRANK LOBIONDO: I've asked my colleagues, because we seem to be very mixed and divided on some of this, think of a human face. My constituents, the constituents of the Northeast, they're not just whining. They're not just uncomfortable. They are devastated.
KEITH: New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney says it was never this hard with past disasters.
REPRESENTATIVE CAROLYN MALONEY: We were there with the aid. We didn't delay. We didn't put roadblocks. We didn't put forward all types of requirements to be met. We've voice-voted. We moved swiftly.
KEITH: But the Hurricane Sandy aid package happened to arrive at the House at a time of increased agitation over the deficit, at a time when spending has become a dirty word.
REPRESENTATIVE JEFF DUNCAN: We're $16 trillion in debt, America.
KEITH: South Carolina Republican Jeff Duncan reflects the way a whole lot of House Republicans felt about the $50 billion bill.
DUNCAN: We cannot keep spending money that we don't have on things that we can't afford; and all the while, sending our children and our grandchildren the bill. What part of $16 trillion in debt do ya'll not understand?
KEITH: Duncan was co-author of an amendment that would have required across the board spending cuts to offset the disaster aid funds. That amendment failed, but the majority of Republicans supported it.
And so, when it came to the final vote on the full bill
ERICA ELLIOTT: Total votes: 241 yay.
KEITH: This is Erica Elliott, an aide to the majority whip, reading the tally to reporters.
ELLIOTT: Forty-nine Republican yays, 179 nays.
KEITH: It passed because a whole lot of Democrats joined those few Republicans in voting aye. The governors of New York and New Jersey praised the House for pulling together a unified bipartisan coalition. But that's not normally how things happened in John Boehner's House.
Until very recently - just before the vote on the fiscal cliff deal - Boehner held to the idea that any bill coming up for a vote needed to have the support of the majority of his conference. The fiscal cliff bill didn't and neither did this one.
John Fleming, a Republican from Louisiana says the speaker had to bring it up for a vote - there was too much political pressure. And that informal rule about a majority of the majority, it may no longer be relevant, he says.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN FLEMING: Since this is a Democrat president and a Democrat Senate, I don't think that really holds. I don't think that really matters. I think we should vote our conscious, vote the way we think we should, and try to influence the outcome as best we can. But we are, two-to-one, in the minority.
KEITH: So what does this mean for the next big fights, the debt ceiling and keeping the government funded? It's not clear yet. Boehner will find out what his caucus really thinks at a retreat in Virginia at the end of this week.
Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.