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Senate approves delay in higher flood insurance premiums

The Senate approved a plan Thursday to give hundreds of thousands of homeowners a break from higher flood insurance premiums -- a proposal that faces an uncertain future in the House and has been criticized by the White House.

Senators voted 67 to 32 to delay for up to four years large premium increases that are set to take effect next year as part of updated government flood maps. The plan also allows homeowners with certain flood insurance policies to transfer them to people who buy their houses.

The White House expressed concerns about the proposal this week, but didn't threaten to veto it, only saying that any delay in the premium increases "would further erode the financial position" of the National Flood Insurance Program.

The proposal sailed through the normally divided Senate in a matter of weeks as dozens of senators of both parties and from across the country banded together to push for passage. The legislation was co-sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), two members of the Senate Finance Committee. Menendez's state was especially hard-hit in recent years by hurricanes and severe flooding.

But another co-sponsor, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), has been especially active in pushing for the changes. Passage of the legislation, even if just in the Senate, will be seen as a victory for her as she faces a difficult reelection campaign this year and is seeking to keep the focus on home state concerns while avoiding discussion of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and other controversial issues that could upset her chances.

The bill's passage is also seen as a victory for Senate bipartisanship. Before the final vote Thursday, senators held a series of votes on amendments introduced by Democrats and Republicans -- just the fifth time since last summer that the Senate has held up-or-down roll call votes on GOP amendments. One proposal, by Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.), would have phased in the rate increases at 25 percent of existing rates each year. But it was soundly rejected by members of both parties.

The measure faces a more uncertain future in the House, where Democrats and Republicans are working on a slightly different plan that would reshape a food insurance reform plan passed by Congress two years ago.

The federal government began subsidizing flood insurance policies for homeowners who lived in flood-prone areas in the late 1960s but lawmakers began rethinking the program a few years ago as the NFIP faced multi-billion dollar deficits. In recent years scientists also have warned that rising sea levels will make flooding even more common in some areas. Environmentalists and fiscal conservatives alike argued that it made little sense to encourage building in high-risk areas.

In 2012, Congress approved reforms that aimed to end subsidized rates for 438,000 insurance policies in flood zones  — mainly second homes, businesses, and repeatedly flooded properties. Subsidies for the rest (about 715,000 properties) would get rolled back more gradually, as the homes were sold. A separate set of properties could also face premium hikes as the government revises its flood maps.

But within a year, the flood program began running even larger deficits and after widespread protest, lawmakers began working on another fix. They announced an agreement this past fall.

In the House, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the 2012 bill, and Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), whose Staten Island district was devastated by the remnants of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, are working to build support for a version of the Senate plan. Grimm this week cited the stress of working on the legislation as one of the reasons that he verbally threatened a television reporter.

The Grimm-Waters proposal has more than 120 co-sponsors from both parties, but Republican leaders haven't said yet whether they will permit a vote.

Brad Plumer contributed to this report.