House Takes Up Sandy Relief Bill After It Was Dropped By Previous Congress

The House made good on a promise from Speaker John Boehner to pass stalled federal aid for those hit by Hurricane Sandy. Tamara Keith talks to Robert Siegel to explain the politics surrounding the $51 billion package.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. It's been two and a half months since Hurricane Sandy crashed into the East Coast and since then, federal disaster relief funds have gotten wrapped up in politics. At the end of the last Congress, House leaders faced strong criticism from within their own party for letting a relief bill die. Well, after a series of votes today, they approved as much as $50 billion for New York and New Jersey.

For more on this story, we're joined now by NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith. Hi, Tamara.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: This measure is coming in multiple parts. I want you to explain what's going on here.

KEITH: I will do my best. In short, House Republicans want lots of opportunities to vote on various aspects of the Sandy funding measure so that they can take a stand and then not necessarily take a stand on the next part or basically vote for it before they're against it, kind of a thing. So there's a base bill. It's $17 billion in funding and then there's an amendment that would and another $33 billion getting us up to that 50 billion mark.

And in there about a dozen other amendments, some of which would remove funding from very specific things, like the National Weather Service Ground Readiness Program. And right now, as we speak, there are votes happening on another amendment that would basically require offsets, spending cuts, to match the $17 billion in disaster funding.

SIEGEL: Tamara, this is disaster aid, which is not usually so controversial. Why such a complicated dance on this particular measure?

KEITH: The Republican mantra for the past several months or probably more than that has been we have a spending problem and this is spending. Yes, it's spending that's traditionally been untouchable, but it's still spending. And one theory of why House leaders let the Sandy funding bill die at the end of the last Congress was because they had just voted on this fiscal cliff deal, which was something that most Republicans hated.

It didn't deal with spending and it allowed taxes to rise. And then, you know, the very next bill to come up was going to ask them to approve tens of billions of dollars in new spending. You know, it's been two weeks now, but there's still many - House Republicans are very uncomfortable with this. But then there are others, like New Jersey's Frank LoBiondo, who say we need to do this.

REPRESENTATIVE FRANK LOBIONDO: I've asked my colleagues, because we seem to be very mixed and divided on some of this, think of the human face. My constituents, the constituents of the Northeast, they're not just whining. They're not just uncomfortable. They are devastated.

SIEGEL: Now, Tamara, the Northeast is not the Republican heartland, so what are you watching for in today's votes and what do you think House Speaker John Boehner might be looking for?

KEITH: The real question is how many House Republicans will vote against this measure. Most congressional watchers, most people believe that this will pass somehow, some way, with strong support from Democrats. But you could see 60, 70, maybe more House Republicans peel off. And the question is whether John Boehner will get the majority of the majority, whether a majority of House Republicans will support this measure.

In the past, he said he wouldn't bring a bill up unless it had that level of support, but then with the fiscal cliff deal, very few Republicans supported it and it passed because of Democrats. And the question now is whether he is going to have to keep breaking his rule.

SIEGEL: And we'll see what happens this evening. NPR's Tamara Keith speaking with us from the Capitol. Thank you.

KEITH: Thank you, Robert.

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