POLITICS: PennAve

Senate passes flood insurance bill

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Legislation that would delay some premium rate increases stemming from changes to a federal flood insurance program cleared the Senate Thursday, though the bill's journey might stop dead in the House.

The measure passed 67-32, with 14 Republicans crossing the aisle to vote in favor and Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the lone opposing Democrat. But whether that's the "strong" number Democrats were seeking to coax House Republicans into putting the bill on the floor remains to be seen.

"The question is, what happens down there at the other end of the Capitol?" Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said during floor debate. "Let's just get a real big vote here, and that will send a message to our colleagues in the House of Representatives that this is no fooling time."

The bill suspends some changes called for in a bipartisan 2012 law aimed at clearing the Federal Emergency Management Agency-administered program's debt, which stands at $24 billion. That law aimed to make federal flood insurance policies reflect the actual risk of living near waterways -- the program had for decades encouraged development in such areas by offering taxpayer-subsidized, below-market rates.

Democrats, and some Republicans, argued it was a way to prevent major, unanticipated spikes in premiums for the 5.5 million homeowners who hold such policies.

"This is an honest, good-faith attempt to make the flood insurance program work," Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said during floor debate.

Opponents of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., argued that delaying the rate increases would continue to incentivize people moving into flood-prone areas, which will become more widespread as rising sea levels and warmer waters propelled by climate change threaten to intensify storms.

"I believe people in America deserve to know the cost and risk of where they live," Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said on the Senate floor. "And taxpayers deserve to have those who choose to live in harm's way to assume their own risk."

Specifically, the bill would postpone rate increases for four years for people whose houses were included in new flood maps drawn up as part of the 2012 law and for those bought homes with federal flood insurance policies already in place.

Republicans and, in a rare alliance, environmental groups preferred an alternative proposed by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would have gradually phased in the rate increases. But that failed Thursday on the Senate floor.

Many Republicans argued that the bill that passed would cancel the rate increases because the bill draws them out beyond the flood insurance law's authorization period.

"We're going to delay it four years. And it's going to cost billions. And we're not going to solve it," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

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