New Jersey residents displaced by Superstorm Sandy can now use Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to pay for security deposits when renting apartments or homes.
Officials say the policy change announced Tuesday will especially benefit low- to moderate-income families who have been in motels and hotels since the storm hit in late October and can't afford security deposits.
FEMA usually provides two months of rent to households that have been displaced due to storms, but all households that receive FEMA rental assistance can seek additional funding. They must provide their lease and all receipts for rent and security deposits.
FEMA cannot reimburse households that have already paid a security deposit with their own money. And FEMA rent money can't be used to pay for utilities, telephone or television service.
Meanwhile in Washington, northeastern lawmakers hoping to push a $50.7 billion Superstorm Sandy aid package through the House face roadblocks by fiscal conservatives seeking offsetting spending cuts to pay for recovery efforts as well as cuts for projects they say are unrelated to the Oct. 29 storm.
Their amendments set up a faceoff Tuesday as the House moved toward votes on the emergency spending package, with Northeast lawmakers in both parties eager to provide recovery aid for one of the worst storms ever to strike the region.
The base $17 billion bill by the House Appropriations Committee is aimed at immediate Sandy recovery needs, including $5.4 billion for New York and New Jersey transit systems and $5.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief aid fund.
Northeast lawmakers will have a chance to add to that bill with an amendment by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., for an additional $33.7 billion, including $10.9 billion for public transportation projects.
The Club for Growth, a conservative group, is urging lawmakers to oppose both Sandy aid measures. Sandy aid supporters, nonetheless, voiced confidence Monday they would prevail. The Senate passed a $60.4 billion Sandy aid package in December with bipartisan support.
Lawmakers emerging from a private meeting of House Democrats Tuesday morning said they were urged to support the bill despite imperfections.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said after a private meeting of House Democrats Tuesday morning that he believed the full Sandy measure would pass. He said he was expecting about 50 Republican votes for the $33 billion portion of the measure, and he said he believed the votes would be there for the $17 billion portion and to defeat a GOP across-the-board spending cut amendment as well.
“I think we'll be all right,” he said.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said Congress had waited far too long to act, 79 days after the storm struck.
“It is imperative that we pass this package today,” said Lowey.
The House will consider 13 amendments, including one requiring spending offsets and four seeking to strike money for some projects either not directly related to Sandy or not seen as emergency spending.
As with past natural disasters, the $50.7 billion Sandy aid package does not provide for offsetting spending cuts, meaning the aid comes at the cost of higher deficits. The lone exception is an offset provision in the Frelinghuysen amendment requiring that the $3.4 billion for Army Corps of Engineers projects to protect against future storms be paid for by spending cuts elsewhere in the 2013 budget.
Sandy aid supporters are most concerned about the amendment by conservative Reps. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., Tom McClintock, R-Calif., Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., and Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., to offset the $17 billion base bill with spending cuts of 1.6 percent for all discretionary appropriations for 2013.
Northeast lawmakers said passage of the Mulvaney amendment could complicate prospects for quick action on the broader Sandy aid package in the Senate, which has passed a $60.4 billion aid package with bipartisan support that does not have offsetting spending cuts.
Mulvaney said he wasn't trying to torpedo the aid package with his amendment.
“This is not a poison pill,” he said. “It's not designed for delay. ... I just want to try and find a way to pay for” Sandy aid.
Other amendments set for floor debate would cut $150 million for Regional Ocean Partnership Grants, $13 million for the National Weather Service ground readiness project, $1 million for the Legal Services Corporation and $9.8 million for rebuilding seawalls and buildings on uninhabited islands in the Steward McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in Connecticut.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, planned votes on both the $17 billion base bill and the Frelinghuysen proposal for $33.7 billion more. He's responding both to conservatives who are opposed to more deficit spending, and to pointed criticism from Govs. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., and Chris Christie, R-N.J., who are fuming because the House hasn't acted sooner.
Boehner decided on New Year's Day to delay a scheduled vote after House Republicans rebelled over a bill allowing taxes to rise on families making more than $450,000 a year because it included only meager spending cuts. Christie called the speaker's action “disgusting.”
The Senate's $60.4 billion bill on Sandy relief expired with the previous Congress on Jan. 3. But about $9.7 billion was money for replenishing the government's flood insurance fund to help pay Sandy victims, and Congress approved that separately earlier this month. Whatever emerges from the House this week is scheduled for debate in the Senate next week after President Barack Obama's second inauguration.
FEMA has spent about $3.1 billion in disaster relief money for shelters, restoring power and other immediate needs after the storm pounded the Atlantic Coast with hurricane-force winds. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were the hardest hit.