The House on Tuesday approved $50 billion in emergency funds for Superstorm Sandy relief, rejecting conservatives' plea to offset the spending with cuts as most lawmakers said worries about the deficit need to take a back seat when natural disasters strike.
It marks the second major bill Republicans have cleared through the House this month despite the opposition of most of their own members — suggesting a willingness on the part of the GOP to embrace freewheeling debate regardless of the outcome.
In this case, defense-hawk Republicans and the New York and New Jersey Republican delegations joined with Democrats to power the bill across unscathed, saying it's too tough to find room to cut elsewhere in the budget and the only way to get money flowing quickly is to add it to the deficit.
"There are times when disasters simply go beyond our ability to offset," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican. "Hurricane Sandy is one of those times."
The storm struck the Northeast in late October. Although the federal government has been able to handle emergency needs, lawmakers said the recovery will stall unless more money can be found.
House lawmakers approved two tranches of money Tuesday: $17 billion for immediate needs and $33.5 billion to be spent over the next decade. The bill passed on a 241-180 vote Tuesday evening.
Just 49 Republicans voted with all but one Democrat for the spending, while 179 Republicans voted against it.
The key vote, however, came hours earlier when conservatives tried to impose across-the-board spending cuts to offset at least some of the new spending.
For decades, emergency disaster spending has been tacked onto the deficit — including after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But conservatives argued that with the federal debt bumping up against its $16.39 trillion limit, it's time to break that precedent.
"The time has come and gone in this nation where we can walk in and spend $9, or $17, or $60 billion and not talk about who's paying for it," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, the South Carolina Republican who forced the vote.
Defense-hawk Republicans, though, said the military can't handle any more cuts, and they joined Republicans from New York and New Jersey and with almost all Democrats in defeating the amendment by a 258-162 vote.
Republicans did force a few changes to the bill, including striking $150 million for grants to Regional Ocean Partnerships. The House voted to prevent any money from going to fishery disasters that aren't related to Sandy.
The Senate's version of the bill, which passed that chamber in the previous Congress, contained money that could have gone to fund salmon fisheries in Alaska and oyster fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico.
The House bill now goes to the Senate, where Democrats next week will have to decide whether to accept it as is, or try to add back in some of their priorities. That could slow a process that all sides say needs to move quickly.
Earlier this month, Congress passed $10 billion in additional borrowing authority for the federal flood insurance program, bringing total expected Sandy spending to $60 billion.
All of that will be added to the fiscal 2013 deficit, almost certainly guaranteeing a trillion-dollar deficit for the fifth straight year.
Most House lawmakers said disaster spending is a special case. It is one-time funding and it represents a century-old consensus that areas struck by acts of God can count on the help of the rest of the country.
"Let us do our part to honor the social compact we have with the American people," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told her colleagues before the vote.
But conservatives argued that just forces the tough decisions into the future.
Taxpayer watchdogs also said the bill creates bad precedent by relaxing cost-sharing requirements between localities and the federal government.
Mr. Mulvaney said even though he lost his bid for offsets, he was happy to get more than 160 votes, saying it means "it's now safe" to talk about offsets. He pointed to a previous disaster relief fight in the last Congress, when Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia proposed finding offsets for a spending bill and was blasted for the suggestion.
"Now I think we can talk about it again in reasoned and dispassionate ways," Mr. Mulvaney said. "I'm not against these folks getting this money, I hope that became clear. All I want to do is talk about whether or not it was so important that we would actually pay for it ourselves, and that's a reasonable discussion this body can have without tearing itself apart."
But the delegations from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut took the debate personally, saying that after years of paying for relief for hurricanes and earthquakes across the rest of the country, it was their turn to get paid.
Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, New Jersey Republican, thundered that those who voted against the spending were "changing the rules for hundreds of thousands of people in the middle of the game."
"Shame on you," he said. "What does the misery index have to get to for our constituents?"
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