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Malia Rulon Herman | Washington Bureau

The Senate voted overwhelmingly on Monday to advance legislation that would delay increases in flood insurance premiums for about four years, until lawmakers can consider how to make the increases affordable.

Members of Congress have received hundreds of complaints from policyholders with the National Flood Insurance Program since their rates increased Oct. 1 as part of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012.

The rate increases were intended to help make the government's flood insurance program financially solvent by bringing rates in line with true risks. But many homeowners say their rates have gone up dramatically, making their homes unaffordable to keep -- and impossible to sell.

"The country needs to wake up. This issue will affect everyone in many places because of the new maps that are coming out, the new science, the new ability to measure elevation," Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana said moments before Monday's vote to move forward with the legislation.

The Biggert-Waters law imposes 25 percent rate hikes on some but not all properties that have received premium subsidies through the National Flood Insurance Program. The program, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has traditionally charged premiums at about 40-45 percent of their full cost, with taxpayers subsidizing the rest.

Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey said he has heard from thousands of homeowners pleading for help. Some have seen their premiums increase from $1,000 a year to $10,000 a year.

Menendez said some New Jersey residents have experienced a "triple whammy" consisting of Hurricane Sandy, huge increases in flood insurance premiums, and finally, a problematic flood insurance mapping process.

"While Sandy made New Jersey especially vulnerable to the rate hikes required under Biggert-Waters... this is not just a New Jersey or a New York or even a coastal issue," Menendez said. "The reason this bill has such broad support across both the ideological and geographical spectrum is because flood insurance isn't just a coastal issue or a Northeast issue -- it's an issue that affects the entire country."

Some 55 percent of Americans live within 50 mile of the coast, and the National Flood Insurance Program insures more than 5.5 million properties across all 50 states, according to Menendez.

Monday's 86-13 vote reflected support well above the threshold of 60 votes needed to advance the bill. It's not clear when the Senate will hold a final vote on passage.

Assuming the measure passes the Senate, it faces an uncertain future in the Republican-controlled House.

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