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House approves $9.7B Superstorm Sandy aid package

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(CNN) — Congress neared final approval of a $9.7 billion Superstorm Sandy aid package following delays over fiscal cliff bickering, warnings of dwindling federal funds and swirling controversy over millions of dollars for unrelated projects.

The measure passed the House, 354-67, and was sent to the Senate, which was expected to sign off without debate later in the day.

House approval was the first legislative action of the new Congress, which picked up the Sandy package after the previous session on Tuesday shelved a vote on a much larger assistance plan for storm victims, infuriating New York and New Jersey politicians.

Lawmakers from both houses will weigh in on $51 billion in additional Sandy aid on January 15. But that larger portion will likely face much closer scrutiny in a Congress anticipating more acrimony over spending and debt in coming months.

The original Sandy aid bill included what some Republicans saw as congressional “pork,” or money for unrelated pet projects. Budget hawks viewed the extra money as wasteful in an era of record budget deficits and poorly timed following the excruciating negotiations in Washington over the fiscal cliff.

Some lawmakers and taxpayer interest groups teased out $8 million for cars for the Homeland Security and Justice departments, $2 million for the Smithsonian to repair roofs, $150 million for fisheries, and $100 million for repair of Head Start facilities.

“It’s perceived to be free money. It goes around the budget caps that are ever tightening. Traditionally we haven’t offset disaster funding, but that doesn’t mean that some of these things should be in there,” said Steve Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog. “It’s honey for the flies.”

But New York Republican Rep. Peter King rejected criticisms of pet projects, or earmarks.

“Those reports were totally false,” King said on CNN.

The Senate Appropriations Committee said the broader aid package was designed to provide funding for any federally declared disaster last year, not just Hurricane Sandy.

Conservative groups, such as the Club for Growth, urged House members to oppose Friday’s scaled-back bill that included more than $9 billion to help the government pay flood insurance claims.

Congress faced strong pressure to boost the debt-ridden flood insurance program, which is the primary option for that type of coverage for U.S. homeowners and businesses. It has been under severe financial pressure for years from payouts related to big storms like Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency told Congress on Tuesday the flood insurance program was nearly out of money to compensate storm victims and required new authority to borrow more money to meet its obligations.

“Congress should not allow the federal government to be involved in the flood insurance industry in the first place, let alone expand the national flood insurance program’s authority,” the Club for Growth wrote on its website.

Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling said flood insurance claims needed to be met for victims who paid their premiums.

“But madam speaker, here is the tragic reality — the national flood insurance program is broke. It is beyond broke. It is now taxpayer bailout broke,” he said on the House floor.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the storm-struck region, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, unleashed a firestorm of criticism at House Republicans for not addressing the measure as originally planned.

“New Jersey deserves better than the duplicity we saw on display,” Christie said, adding, that this is “why the American people hate Congress.”

Later, closed-door meetings between House Republicans from the Northeast and House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor got at least part of the aid package back on track.

But Ellis said that tempers may flare anew when Congress debates the next portion of the bill and unrelated storm expenses are scrutinized.