House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), already battered by the political fallout of the “fiscal cliff” debacle, found himself in another political war Wednesday.
The speaker faced an extraordinary barrage of criticism from outraged members of his own party for not bringing a $60 billion relief package for victims of Hurricane Sandy to a vote in the House before the end of the 112th Congress.
“There is only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Wednesday. “The House majority and their speaker, John Boehner.”
But after a closed-door session with the New York and New Jersey congressional delegations, Boehner announced that the House would vote on the measure in two phases — first on Friday, for $9 billion in flood assistance, and then on an additional $51 billion on Jan. 15, the first full legislative day of the new Congress in the House.
The House had been expected to vote on the package Tuesday night, but GOP aides said that became increasingly difficult as the fiscal-cliff package took final shape.
They said the specter of holding a vote on a federal aid package that included no offsetting spending cuts was politically untenable after the cliff plan, with higher tax rates and no spending cuts, split the Republican conference and could pass the House only with a large Democratic majority.
New York and New Jersey lawmakers took to the floor late Tuesday night after the cliff vote to express their outrage.
“We have a moral obligation to hold this vote,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.). “There are people who are out of their homes. There are people who are cold. There are people who are without food. There are people who lost their jobs.”
Christie made his remark in a heated news conference Wednesday afternoon. He said he called Boehner four times Tuesday night but never heard back. He blamed the delay on “toxic internal politics” in the House majority.
“This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. Natural disasters happen in red states and blue states, in states with Democratic governors and Republican governors,” Christie said. “We respond to innocent victims of natural disasters not as Republicans or Democrats but as Americans. Or at least we did.”
Christie went out of his way to praise President Obama and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) as he slammed Boehner:
“All I can tell you is this was the speaker’s decision, his alone.” Christie said. “As to who I’ve spoken to today, the president called me earlier today to assure me of his continued support and that this was going to continue to be a priority for the administration. I spoke to Majority Leader Cantor earlier today. . . . I think Eric was working as hard as he could to get this done for us throughout the weekend and the early part of this week.”
The superstorm caused an estimated $70 billion in damage to New York and New Jersey, flooding homes and subways, leaving 2 million residents without power for days and claiming 125 lives.
On Thursday, the Senate passed the $60 billion measure by a vote of 61 to 33, and the House Appropriations Committee drafted a smaller $27 billion measure.
Without House action before the current Congress formally dissolves at noon, Congress faced the prospect of starting the entire legislative process over again with a new Congress.
But Boehner assured Northeastern lawmakers that by acting almost immediately after the new Congress is sworn in, lawmakers would speed aid to the affected states.
New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) met with Boehner and Senate leaders last month and sought roughly $42 billion in federal aid. Christie sought about $37 billion in aid for his state.
Cuomo, in a joint statement with Christie, said the House “abandoned” its responsibilities.
“The people of our states can no longer afford to wait while politicians in Washington play games.”
Even conservatives who probably would have voted against the measure suggested Boehner made a misstep by promising to hold a vote and then not delivering.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a deeply conservative critic of Boehner’s, said members had not been given a chance on Tuesday to review the Sandy aid legislation. He had concerns with promising billions in new spending given that he had been told that the Federal Emergency Management Agency currently had cash on hand.
FEMA has doled out about $2 billion in aid to states affected by the storm and has roughly $4.3 billion in relief funds, according to officials.
“It creates real problems for the leadership to say one thing and do another,” he said. “We didn’t see the bill. But when you promise Congressman King you’re going to run the bill and then all of a sudden, you pull it, it creates concern.”
King, who initially called Boehner’s decision a “cruel knife in the back” to his region and said that anyone from New York or New Jersey who gives money to House Republicans “should have their heads examined,” said after the closed-door meeting that he understood Boehner’s motives.
“Basically, the speaker said it wasn’t appropriate to bring this up last night or this morning. Obviously we disagreed with that,” King said. “This was a very intense 24, 48 hours — we’re all big boys, we understand that.”
Rep. Michael G. Grimm, part of whose district is in Staten Island, said he had always supported the speaker.
“Was I very angry, very disappointed, did I feel like I got the rug pulled out from under me? Yes, absolutely I did,” he said. “It is what it is; sometimes leadership does that, and I get that; being in the Marine Corps, I can tell you it happens. But he made it right. Can we get those 13 days back? No, we can’t.”
After the House votes on the first installment of $9 billion in aid, a Senate Democratic leadership aide said the Senate will move to immediately adopt the bill by a simple voice vote — a legislative process that does not require senators to be present.
But the aide said senators will need to see more details about the second bill the House plans to adopt before they commit to advancing it.
“As the Senate has shown by passing our bipartisan bill, we consider getting aid to the victims of Sandy a superlative priority, but we need to know more about the contents of the bill before deciding on a path forward,” the aide said.
Rosalind S. Helderman and Brook Silva-Braga contributed to this report.