Politics & Government

Many GOP lawmakers from storm states refuse to back aid package

Hurricane Irma appears to be heading for South Florida as a Category 4 storm.
Hurricane Irma appears to be heading for South Florida as a Category 4 storm. AP

Even as Hurricane Irma roars towards Florida and points north, more than two dozen congressional Republicans from storm-vulnerable states Friday voted against authorizing $15.25 billion in disaster relief funds.

Despite looking insensitive, though, conservatives insisted constituents would understand their votes.

House lawmakers voted Friday on an aid package crafted by Democrats and President Donald Trump. It includes federal financial aid for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts in Texas and Louisiana. Leftover funds are expected to be used to address the most immediate aftermath of Irma in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

The package was controversial because it included a three-month extension of government funding and the federal debt ceiling. Many Republicans refuse to raise the debt ceiling without certain conservative concessions aimed at curbing spending. And they’re usually disinclined to vote for stopgap spending bills.

Though they’ll get to fight Democrats – and each other – over spending priorities in December, the conservative dissenters Friday resented having to vote for a catch-all bill or be accused of thwarting disaster relief efforts.

The final tally, 316-90, reflected just how angry and disillusioned conservatives were with the arrangement. All of the no votes came from Republicans.

Three of six South Carolina Republicans voted no: Reps. Mark Sanford, Jeff Duncan and Ralph Norman. In North Carolina, seven of 10 GOP lawmakers were opposed: Reps. Ted Budd, Virginia Foxx, George Holding, Richard Hudson, Mark Meadows, David Rouzer and Mark Walker.

Three Georgia Republicans opposed the package: Reps. Doug Collins, Jody Hice and Barry Loudermilk.

Many said they had no qualms about opposing the bill, arguing their constituents understood the dynamics.

"The president has worked out this deal with (Democrats) to throw in a bunch of things into one bill,” said Sanford. “It doesn't work for me or, I believe, the district that I represent."

Besides, Sanford, Duncan and Norman all said, they had already voted earlier in the week for a Harvey aid bill without the debt and budget link. They said they would be happy to do so again – even without immediate offsets, a major concession for fiscal conservatives who want most spending bills to be paid for.

“If the same were true in South Carolina, and a bill came up with not just money for FEMA but for every other project? No, I couldn’t support that, so I would be consistent,” Norman said.

All but four of the 25 Republicans in the Texas delegation, some reluctantly, voted for the package Friday, including Rep. Bill Flores, who called the deal a “crap sandwich.”

He said he expressed his dissatisfaction to Mike Pence on Thursday evening when the vice president hosted Texas lawmakers at his home at the Naval Observatory.

Miami's congressional delegation was largely absent from Washington as the House voted. Members were busy securing their homes and meeting with local officials ahead of the storm, which is due to hit the state before others along the coast.

Their absence from Washington didn't stop them from lobbying colleagues to support the relief bill. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to every House member ahead of the vote.

"As Hurricane Irma approaches Florida, I would ask that all my congressional colleagues reflect on the fate of Florida’s 20.61 million residents when they are asked to again vote on this vital emergency disaster funding,” she wrote.

“I hope today’s vote is a sign that we stand united as a nation when natural disaster strikes such a large group of Americans,” fellow Miami Republican Carlos Curbelo said in a statement after the bill was passed.

Of the five Florida Republicans who voted, Reps. Matt Gaetz and Ted Yoho were opposed.

Other Republicans from Irma-bound states who voted for the package, however, said there was very much an obligation to make disaster relief funding available, despite disliking the vehicle.

“There’s never a perfect bill and this certainly is not,” said Rep. Robert Pittenger, whose southern North Carolina district was hit hard last fall by Hurricane Matthew. “It’s not the way we would have done it. Nonetheless, we have very important emergency funding relief from these hurricanes. It’s important for North Carolina.”

The Senate approved the legislation Thursday, 80-17. Republican senators from Texas, North Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana all voted yes. South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott voted yes, while Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., opposed as a protest against stopgap spending measures. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio was already home preparing for the storm but said he would have voted yes.

Casting somewhat of a shadow over the debate this week were memories of the bitter fight for funding after Superstorm Sandy devastated areas of New York and New Jersey in 2012. Fiscal conservatives were for a time unwilling to vote for an aid package.

New York and New Jersey Republicans Friday were not inclined to let their colleagues forget that, now and in the weeks ahead when more money might be needed for Irma relief.

On Friday, New York GOP Rep. Peter King indicated that he, at least, was ready to move on.

“I don’t want to hold anyone hostage,” said King. “I went through that in 2012, as some of the other guys did, and I don’t want anyone else to, too. I don’t want to blame the innocent people for the sins of their congressmen.”

Brian Murphy and Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.

Contact: Emma Dumain at edumain@mcclatchydc.com