"This is a huge relief," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., noting the vote came 91 days after Sandy struck. "We are now just a presidential pen stroke away from beginning the rebuilding process in earnest."
Lawmakers say the money is urgently needed to start rebuilding homes, businesses, public transportation facilities and other infrastructure damaged by the Oct. 29 storm, one of the worst to strike the Northeast. Sandy is blamed for more than 130 deaths in the U.S. and tens of billions of dollars in property damages, particularly in New York and New Jersey.
The House passed the bill two weeks ago. The measure is aimed primarily at helping residents and businesses as well as state and local governments rebuild from the storm. The biggest chunk of money is $16 billion for Housing and Urban Development Department community-development block grants. Of that, about $12.1 billion will be shared among Sandy victims as well as those from other federally declared disasters in 2011-2013. The remaining $3.9 billion is solely for Sandy-related projects.
More than $11 billion will go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief-aid fund for shelter, restoring power and other storm-interrupted utility services and meeting other immediate needs arising from Sandy and other disasters. And $10 billion is devoted to repairing New York and New Jersey transit systems and making them more resistant to future storms.
Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said Republicans weren't seeking "to undermine" help for Sandy victims but instead were trying to make sure that the money was actually being spent on emergency needs.
"We're simply trying to say we need some standards," Coats said.
Earlier in January, Congress approved and Obama signed a $9.7 billion bill to replenish the National Flood Insurance Program, which has received more 100,000 flood insurance claims related to Sandy.
Added to the new, $50.5 billion package, the total is roughly in line with the $60.4 billion that Obama requested in December.
Sandy damaged or destroyed 305,000 housing units in New York and more than 265,000 businesses were disrupted there, according to officials. In New Jersey, more than 346,000 households were destroyed or damaged.
The aid package was greased for passage before the last Congress adjourned and the new one came in on Jan. 3. But Speaker John Boehner refused to bring it to the floor after two-thirds of House Republicans voted against a fiscal cliff deficit-reduction deal raising taxes on couples making more than $450,000 a year while deferring $24 billion in spending cuts to have been shared between defense and domestic programs.
The ruckus after the Senate had passed an earlier $60.4 billion Sandy relief package by a nearly 2-to-1 margin on Dec. 28 exposed deep political divisions within Republican ranks.
"There's only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims, the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner," Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fumed at the time.