- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2014

Just two years after it fixed the federal flood insurance program to make homeowners pay premiums commensurate with their risk, Congress on Thursday reversed some of those reforms, bowing to political pressure from constituents shocked at how high their premiums jumped.

The Senate cleared the changes on a 72-22 vote that sent the legislation to President Obama for his signature, capping a spate of last-minute activity before lawmakers take another 10-day recess.

Even as they were voting on the flood insurance bill, senators announced a deal to extend long-term federal unemployment benefits and cleared a bipartisan bill renewing federal support and standards for child care providers. However, they failed to find agreement on a bill to impose sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine.

The sanctions were tied up by disputes over exporting natural gas to Europe, altering U.S. policy toward the International Monetary Fund and halting the Obama administration’s effort to impose more restraints on the political activities of nonprofits.

Democrats and some Republicans were furious that they were about to leave for 10 days without offering a show of support for embattled Ukraine.

“I’ve been embarrassed before on the floor of the United States Senate,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. “But I haven’t been embarrassed this way by my own party.”

The sour note ended what had been a major outbreak of bipartisanship, particularly on the flood insurance program. Lawmakers in the House and Senate were hearing from angry constituents who were stunned to see their premiums skyrocket under the 2012 law.

That law called for premiums to be adjusted to match a homeowner’s risk for flooding. But updates to flood risk maps caused many premiums to rise, and Congress scrambled to try to relieve the pain for homeowners ahead of November’s elections.

“This huge victory saves families in Louisiana and across the country from losing their homes,” said Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican whose state was particularly hit hard by the maps.

The law grandfathers in homes built to previous code standards, limits premium increases to no more than 18 percent a year and imposes higher fees on other property owners to make up for the costs over the next decade.

Republicans pushed the bill through the House last week on a bipartisan 306-91 vote. Senators on Thursday nixed a version they passed earlier this year and approved the House bill instead.

Conservative lobby groups and taxpayer advocates said the bill reversed the key reforms.

Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who serves as a one-man watchdog for taxpayers, said the vote was a “heartbreaking” surrender that put politics over policy.

“I hope we’re happy that we’ve solved the parochial problems, but when you go to sleep tonight, think about who’s going to pay that bill,” Mr. Coburn said. “It’s the kids of this country.”

The flood insurance bill is the latest in a string of legislation that has cleared Capitol Hill in the past few months that wipes out some of the spending victories and reforms from the previous Congress. In December, Congress agreed to a budget deal that boosted discretionary spending in 2014 and 2015 in exchange for potential cuts at the end of the decade.

The unemployment deal reached by a handful of Republicans and Democrats likewise will take a decade’s worth of fee increases and savings and spend the funds over the next five months on a one-time renewal of federal jobless benefits.

The deal would provide immediate relief for five months for the 2 million people whose long-term benefits expired Dec. 28.

“We’re not at the finish line yet, but this is a bipartisan breakthrough,” said Sen. Jack Reed, the Rhode Island Republican who pushed for the bill.

Senate Republicans filibustered several earlier versions, arguing that they either weren’t funded or that Democrats resorted to budget gimmicks.

The bipartisan proposal would cover the cost by extending what is known as “pension-smoothing” — a measure that allows companies to delay pension payments now and give more in taxes over the next decade. The companies eventually will have to make good on the pension payments, meaning the government would lose that money.

Some Republicans say that constitutes a gimmick.

But the five Republican co-sponsors combined with all 55 Democratic caucus members should be enough to overcome a filibuster.

Even if the unemployment bill clears the Senate, it faces a troubled path in the House. Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, has said any unemployment benefit bill would have to be coupled with job growth policies.

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