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Republicans rake leader for stalling on US storm aid

A destroyed home is viewed along the beach in the Belle Harbor neighborhood in the Rockaways on January 2, 2013
A destroyed home is viewed along the beach in the Belle Harbor neighborhood in the Rockaways on January 2, 2013 in the Queens borough of New York City. US singer Patti Page, famous for songs including "The Tennessee Waltz" and the novelty hit "How much is

US President Barack Obama urged Congress Wednesday to approve emergency relief for victims of superstorm Sandy, as Republicans savaged their House leader for playing politics with disaster aid.

The Senate has already passed a $60.4 billion aid package put forward by the White House to help northeast US states still reeling in the wake of the killer October storm, which destroyed tens of thousands of homes and businesses.

But, in the lower house, Speaker John Boehner, still smarting from battle with the Democratic president over "fiscal cliff" budget negotiations, at first signaled there would be no vote in the closing days of the outgoing Congress.

Boehner's move however sparked a firestorm of rage and indignation from figures in both parties, prompting the Republican speaker to announce a two-stage vote on Sandy relief -- on Friday and again on January 15.

"Getting critical aid to the victims of Hurricane Sandy should be the first priority in the new Congress," Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in a joint statement.

Earlier, Obama and New Jersey's outspoken Republican governor Chris Christie led the charge against Boehner's unwillingness to act more quickly.

Our "citizens are still trying to put their lives back together. Our states are still trying to rebuild vital infrastructure," Obama said in a statement, noting he had worked with local leaders like Christie to come up with the aid.

"The House of Representatives has refused to act, even as there are families and communities who still need our help," Obama said, urging Republicans to swiftly bring the aid package to a vote.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks at a press conference in Hoboken, New Jersey, on November 4, 2012
Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie speaks at a press conference on superstorm Sandy cleanup efforts, in Hoboken, New Jersey, on November 4, 2012.

Earlier Wednesday, Christie and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo of neighboring New York issued a harsh joint statement, calling the House's failure to come to the aid of devastated Americans "inexcusable."

"When American citizens are in need we come to their aid. That tradition was abandoned in the House last night," they said.

Hours later, before the television cameras, Christie went nuclear.

"It's absolutely disgraceful," he boomed, noting how politicians used to quickly come together to pass disaster relief, as was the case with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"But now in this current atmosphere everything is the subject of one-upmanship, everything is... a potential piece of bait for the political game," Christie said.

"It is why the American people hate Congress.... If the people of New Jersey feel betrayed today by those who did this in the House last night, then they have good company. I'm with them."

Since the relief bill will now come to the floor after Thursday, when the incoming Congress is sworn in, new legislation will have to be crafted and voted on in both chambers.

Flooding from Sandy, which hit the densely populated northeast with hurricane force, damaged tens of thousands of homes and businesses, as well as pummeling critical infrastructure.

US Rep. Christopher Smith (R) and Rep. Peter King (2nd R) speak to the media on January 2, 2013 on Capitol Hill
US Rep. Christopher Smith (R) and Rep. Peter King (2nd R) speak to the media after a meeting regarding the Sandy aid bill on January 2, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Fuming Republican congressman Peter King of New York tore into his own leadership as well, saying New Yorkers would be "out of their minds" if they contributed any money to congressional Republicans now.

"What they did last night was put a knife in the back of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans," he told Fox News.

Later Wednesday, he and other members met with Boehner, and King explained that the House would vote Friday on $9 billion in flood insurance for storm-hit states -- plans confirmed by Boehner and Cantor.

"On January 15th, which is the first legislative day, we will vote on the remaining $51 billion, which is required, we believe, for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut," King said.

Some senators including Marco Rubio from Florida, a hurricane-prone state which has received billions in federal disaster aid, voted against the Sandy bill, claiming it was stuffed with "pork" -- funding for projects or elements unrelated to Sandy relief.

House Democrats were also astonished at Boehner's delay.

"It is a tragedy, it is unacceptable," number two Democrat Steny Hoyer said on CNN.