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Bipartisan flood Insurance bill clears Senate hurdle

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan bill to delay dramatic increases in federal flood insurance premiums for millions of American homeowners and small businesses cleared a Republican procedural roadblock in the U.S. Senate on Monday.

On a vote of 86-13, the Senate agreed to advance the Homeowners Flood Insurance Affordability Act, which would postpone for four years rate hikes of up to 10 fold and more.

A vote on Senate passage of the bill could come later this week after consideration of a number of possible amendments offered by members on both sides of the political aisle.

Republicans could still end up blocking the measure if they feel that they were not given an adequate chance to amend it, a senior aide said.

Backers of the legislation say big increases in premiums could force many Americans to give up their homes, which, in turn could drive down property values and hurt the economy.

"This issue isn't just about insurance rate tables and actuarial risk rates - fundamentally it's all about people," said Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a chief sponsor of the bill.

Conservative opponents of the measure argue that a delay in the premium hikes would force taxpayers to continue help cover the cost of insurance in high-risk flood areas.

Nearly a third of the Senate's 100 members are sponsors of the legislation. There are 181 sponsors of a similar measure in the 435-member House of Representatives.

In 2012, Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which began raising rates in last October.

The increased premiums are designed to make property owners pay for the true risk of living in high flood hazard areas, including coastal areas of Florida, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Louisiana, and inland states prone to river flooding.

The 2012 bill was passed with strong bipartisan support to try to end a $24 billion deficit in the National Flood Insurance Program, which had mounting losses largely from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

Shortly after passage of the bill, Superstorm Sandy hammered much of the United States' northeastern coast, generating a mountain of new insurance claims.

The Senate bill would delay premium hikes for four years to give the Federal Emergency Management Agency time to finish an affordability study and re-evaluate the accuracy of its new maps of flood areas.

During this delay, Congress would consider possible changes in the insurance program to protect homeowners as well as taxpayers.

The Senate bill is backed by a number of groups, including the National Association of Homebuilders, the National Association of Realtors, and the American Bankers Association.

(Additional reporting by David Adams and Richard Cowan; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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