6 Texans oppose relief bill
Measure passes easily; Abbott had criticized level of help for Texas
WASHINGTON — The U.S. House easily passed a $36.5 billion emergency disaster relief bill on Thursday, but not before a flare-up between Gov. Greg Abbott and members of the Texas delegation that prompted Speaker Paul Ryan to intervene.
Six Texas Republicans voted against the measure, arguing it will add to the debt and fails to include needed changes to a beleaguered federal flood insurance program.
On Wednesday, Abbott popped off at Texas lawmak- ers, accusing them of lacking a “stiff spine” in negotiations over the latest round of relief funding, which omitted his recent $18.7 billion request for Hurricane Harvey-specific aid.
At the Texans’ request, Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin Mccarthy, Majority Whip Steve Scalise and Chief Deputy Whip Patrick Mchenry phoned the governor late Wednesday to ease tensions.
The leaders explained that
the emergency measure is intended to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s near-depleted coffers and help the deeply in-debt National Flood Insurance Program pay claims to property owners, which in turn helps Texas.
And Ryan assured the governor that Congress will take up the state’s recent request for nearly $19 billion in Harvey relief as soon as November, several people said. Texas wants the money to help rebuild homes and businesses lost in the hurricane, expand bayous and develop critical flood mitigation projects.
Mccarthy, who visited with Abbott after Hurricane Harvey, again called the governor Thursday during a Texas GOP luncheon. House leaders were unwilling to risk losing the Texas delegation’s votes for the bill, which under special fasttrack rules required two-thirds support.
The House leaders’ pledge to take up the Lone Star request appears to have soothed the state’s top official, if a statement from Abbott’s spokesman is any indication.
“The governor will hold House leadership to that promise on behalf of Texans whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Harvey,” said Deputy Chief of Staff Matt Hirsch. “In the meantime, the governor and the Texas delegation will continue working together as a team to help Texans recover and rebuild.”
The House leaders’ intervention came after an unusual rebuke from a Republican governor, leveled at a largely Gop-led delegation.
In an interview with the
Houston Chronicle on Wednesday, Abbott said “it appears the Texas delegation will let themselves be rolled by the House of Representatives” and said he was “disappointed” many had agreed to vote for the package.
The admonishment sent ripple effects among the GOP members, in particular, as many were set to support the disaster relief bill.
“The members were confused. I was confused last night, because I intended to vote for it, but not if my governor is against it,” Coppell Rep. Kenny Marchant said ahead of the vote.
In the end, Marchant and five other Texas Republicans — Arlington Rep. Joe Barton, Tyler Rep. Louie Gohmert, Dallas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Heath Rep. John Ratcliffe and Austin Rep. Roger Williams — voted against the measure. Texas Democrats uniformly supported it.
Hensarling, whose Financial Services Committee has proposed a series of changes to the federal flood program, said he opposed the bill because it didn’t take up any of those provisions.
The program reached its $30.4 billion borrowing authority after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, leaving it unable to pay many flood claims. The House relief bill would cancel $16 billion of that debt.
While the House measure ignored multibillion-dollar requests from Texas and Florida, it would direct $18.7 billion to FEMA’S disaster relief fund and includes a $4.9 billion loan to help cash-strapped Puerto Rico after a devastating a series of hurricanes. The House bill would also spend about $577 million to help states battling wildfires.
Abbott, who is up for re-election next year, said Wednesday that the money is far from what Texas needs to recover from Harvey. “The least that Texans deserve is for their congressional delegation to stand with them on this funding,” he told the Chronicle.
Many Texas Republicans indicated Abbott may have been misinformed about the nature of the bill.
The governor “somehow got the impression that this was going to be a Puerto Rico bill,” said Rep. Pete Olson, RSugar Land, adding that Texas will benefit the most by keeping FEMA afloat.
Texas stands to receive $15 billion from the measure, about $11 billion in anticipated flood claims and $4 billion in FEMA disaster relief dollars, according to figures released by Reps. John Culberson, John Carter and Kay Granger, who sit on the House Appropriations Committee.
The trio pledged to work with Abbott on long-term needs, which they said could exceed $100 billion.
But his handling of this bill rubbed some the wrong way.
Bryan Rep. Bill Flores was peeved that Abbott’s office hadn’t reached out before slamming fellow Republicans.
“It’s inappropriate to say that somebody has no spine when they haven’t talked to you to see what you’ve actually done on their behalf, or how you intend to vote, or what you are doing behind the scenes to try to get things done correctly,” said Flores, a Republican. “To say that we got rolled was an unfortunate comment.”
Rep. Pete Sessions, R-dallas, was similarly displeased. He said federal lawmakers need a more detailed plan from the state about how it would spend the aid, especially when it comes to selling the proposal to other congressional members. He also encouraged Abbott to meet with President Donald Trump about the state’s specific needs.
“Sharing dollars with colleagues is of little significance and virtually unable to be successful,” Sessions said. “The well understood way of doing business in Washington is to come and substantiate your request with data and information.”
Asked about Abbott’s comments, San Antonio Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican, said any misunderstanding is now “moot.”
Another GOP member, Clarendon Rep. Mac Thornberry, raised his eyebrows and shrugged.
Other Texans said they were surprised by Abbott’s remarks, but not offended.
Williams said that he doesn’t take the comments personally and that Abbott raised “legitimate issues.” Like Hensarling, he voted against the measure because it didn’t include legislation to overhaul the flood program.
Abbott is “like a constituent. He’s looking at his representatives to represent him,” Williams said ahead of the vote. “I don’t have a problem with what he said, saying get a spine or whatever it was. I’ve got all that.”
Barton, co-chairman of the recently formed Texas Bipartisan Harvey Task Force, chuckled when told of Abbott’s comments. “We’re not real happy with there not being more money in this supplemental for Texas,” he said. “That’s a fair statement.”
He voted against the spending bill because it “provided limited support for Texas,” a spokesman said. Barton also voted against a $15.3 billion package Congress passed last month because it was bundled with a measure to raise the debt ceiling.
Rep. Mike Conaway, RMidland, said he voted for the bill because he doesn’t want to be a part of “stymieing” Texans from getting needed aid. Once the state submits additional documents about its funding requests, “we’ll move heaven and earth to make sure that happens on behalf of Texas,” he said.
“The governor understands we’re working really hard to make this happen, and we’re not the spineless individuals he thought we were yesterday,” Conaway said.
GREG ABBOTT didn’t get the Harvey aid he sought.