WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - The Senate voted Monday to approve a $50.5 billion emergency aid bill for victims of Superstorm Sandy, three months after the storm began pounding the Northeast.
"We're thrilled that, finally, relief is on its way," Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey said moments after the vote.
Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey said the next step will be making sure funds are disbursed quickly to his state.
"Fate dealt us a bad hand," he said. "The damage was beyond belief."
The vote was 62-36, barely over the 60 votes needed for passage.
The bill now goes to President Obama for signing. It's unclear when that will be. The president was scheduled to depart early Tuesday for Las Vegas, where he will make remarks on immigration reform.
In a statement, Obama said he would "sign this bill into law as soon as it hits my desk."
"I am pleased that Congress took bipartisan action to provide funding for the communities... devastated by Hurricane Sandy," Obama said. "For the families working to put their lives back together, every day without relief is one day too many."
Monday's action brings the total amount of Sandy aid approved by Congress to $60.2 billion. That includes $9.7 billion the House of Representatives and Senate approved on Jan. 4 to pay flood insurance claims related to the storm.
In a joint statement, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo praised congressional passage of the disaster bill, which will spend close to the $60.4 billion originally requested by Obama.
"Despite the difficult path in getting to this moment, the Senate membership clearly recognized early on the urgency and necessity of approving the full aid package and its importance in rebuilding our battered infrastructure and getting our millions of affected residents back on their feet as quickly as possible," they said.
Senators defeated an amendment from Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah that would have offset the $50.5 billion in emergency aid by making across-the-board reductions in discretionary spending over nine years. That measure received 35 votes, well short of the 60 it needed to pass.
Lawmakers from New Jersey and New York decried attempts to offset the aid money and took to the Senate floor to urge colleagues to approve the aid. Congress usually approves such funding by large bipartisan majorities within days or weeks of a disaster.
"These are not just dollars and cents, these are people," Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York said. "Please, we have waited 91 long days. We can't wait any longer."
Menendez noted that only 118 days remain until Memorial Day, when the state's $37 billion summertime tourist season traditionally begins on the Jersey Shore. He called the delays in Sandy aid "unprecedented."
"Ninety-one days we have been languishing waiting for our government to respond to critical issues, life and death situations of fellow Americans," Menendez said. "People have not been able to get their lives back on track."
Lawmakers approved $10.5 billion in emergency aid for victims of Hurricane Katrina just four days after that storm hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. And about a month after the storm made landfall, President George W. Bush signed legislation providing an additional $51.8 billion in relief.
Sandy killed more than 100 people in 10 states - 41 in New York City alone - and wiped out entire communities in coastal New York and New Jersey. It also paralyzed mass transit systems and left tens of thousands of people homeless. Power was cut to more than 8 million homes.
Critics of the Superstorm Sandy disaster relief legislation say it's too expensive and includes provisions that aren't emergency-related, such as infrastructure projects to protect the Northeast coast from future storms.
"When you're running trillion-dollar deficits, I think it has to compete with other demands for infrastructure spending," Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said.
The $50.5 billion bill includes $16 billion in Community Development Block Grant money critical for rebuilding, $5.3 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers to safeguard the Northeast against another storm, and $13 billion for public transportation projects.
The transportation money includes $10.9 billion to improve New Jersey Transit and Port Authority infrastructure, $2 billion for highways and $118 million for Amtrak.
It also includes $11.5 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund and $780 million for Small Business Administration disaster loans.
The money for FEMA and small businesses was expected to be available first. Transit funds could take a few months, Schumer said.
The legislation survived several delays on the way to Monday's vote.
The Senate had planned to vote on the bill last week but was sidetracked by a debate over filibuster rules.
On Dec. 28, the Senate voted to approve $60.4 billion in aid for Sandy victims, but that vote was nullified when the House failed to act before the 113th Congress took office on Jan. 3.