Hurricane Irma: as record-breaking storm approached, two Florida Republicans voted against relief programme bill

Matt Gaetz called the spending package 'generational theft'

Kristine Phillips
Sunday 10 September 2017 13:13 BST
Neither Republican represent parts of the state that are likely to feel Irma's immediate impact
Neither Republican represent parts of the state that are likely to feel Irma's immediate impact (Reuters)

As Irma churned towards the Florida coast, two Republican politicians from the state voted against a $15bn (£11.3bn) hurricane relief bill, saying that although they want to aid storm victims, they have concerns about other provisions of the measure.

The relief package, which sailed through the Senate and the House, and was signed by President Donald Trump on Friday, boosts funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It will also raise the debt ceiling for three months and includes a short-term budget that would keep the government running until December – part of a deal struck between Mr Trump and Democratic leaders Senator Charles Schumer, New York, and Representative Nancy Pelosi, California.

The latter was a problem for GOP Representatives Matt Gaetz and Ted Yoho, who stuck to their principles of fiscal conservatism despite calls from fellow Florida lawmakers to support the bill. The two, who are among the 90 House Republicans who voted against the bill, do not represent parts of the state that are likely to feel Irma’s immediate impact as the massive storm makes landfall on mainland United States this weekend.

Mr Yoho, who represents areas of northern Florida, said the disaster-relief bill should have been stand-alone legislation.

“Snaking in a debt-ceiling increase with funding for victims and communities affected is immoral and reflective of broken leadership in Washington,” he said in a statement after the vote on Friday. “I do not think it wise to extend our borrowing limit without mandatory spending reforms. If this was a clean measure that focused on those affected by Hurricane Harvey, I would have proudly voted for it.”

Mr Gaetz, whose district includes coastal areas along the Gulf of Mexico, called the spending package “generational theft”.

“I have a pretty strident view that I will only vote to raise the debt limit if that vote is accompanied with reductions in entitlement spending,” Mr Gaetz said, according to the Miami Herald. “If conservatives don’t start voting no against debt-limit increases, all the FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] in the world won’t save us from our must unfortunate destiny.”

Both congressmen had voted for a stand-alone bill that would provide nearly $8bn (£6.1bn) in hurricane relief for FEMA. That version passed the House on Wednesday. But they and others soured after the bill came back from the Senate with double the funding and other provisions tacked on.

“I think anytime you start dealing with disasters and tying it to must-pass bills, it’s not a good thing for the American people,” Mr Yoho said on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal before the vote on Friday. “I don’t want to be hypercritical, but when you make a deal with Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on a spending bill, a lot of times it can’t be good for the American consumer.”

Mr Yoho said he opted to stay in Washington this weekend, but he plans to fly to Florida tomorrow, when Irma is expected to reach his district.

“Of course, we want the assistance there, and I can feel comfortable saying that the American people will know that the assistance will be there for FEMA,” he added. “We just don’t want the political antics to be tied up with it.”

The bill passed 316-90, with 133 Republican votes.

Twenty-seven lawmakers, including 11 House Republicans from Florida, did not vote, as many were in their home state preparing for the hurricane. Among them are Representatives Ron DeSantis, Neal Dunn, Bill Posey and Dennis Ross – hardliners who might have voted against the package in other circumstances.

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, another Republican who skipped the vote and whose district includes part of Miami, urged colleagues to vote in favour of the bill.

“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 as it comes back from the Senate,” Ms Ros-Lehtinen said in a letter to House members on Thursday.

Five Florida Republicans remained in Washington for the vote. Three of them, Representatives Brian Mast, Thomas Rooney and Francis Rooney, voted for the bill, as did all six Democrats who stayed.

Four Texas Republicans, Representatives Joe Barton, Jeb Hensarling, Sam Johnson and Mac Thornberry, rejected the bill for the same reasons that Mr Gaetz and Mr Yoho raised.

“I am not voting against relief programmes to help hurricane victims, but I am against raising the public debt ceiling without a plan to reduce deficits on the short term, and eliminate them in the long term,” Mr Barton said in a statement. “The money we vote to spend today will have to be paid back by our children and grandchildren.”

Mr Thornberry criticised advancing “another agenda” by roping it with disaster assistance.

None of those Republicans, however, represent coastal areas affected by Harvey, which barrelled through south-east Texas last week.

Republican Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who skipped the Senate vote on the bill on Thursday to prepare for Irma in Miami, said he would have voted for it “despite significant reservations” about the other items attached to it.

“As I have always done in the past, I support providing additional emergency resources for disaster aid and recovery. Disaster relief is an appropriate function of the federal government. And unlike some previous disaster relief legislation, these funds are to be spent immediately, and are properly targeted to assist the areas impacted by Hurricane Harvey and potentially Hurricane Irma,” Mr Rubio said in a statement on Thursday. “The rest of the package, however, contains items that under normal circumstances, and considered separately, I have opposed.”

The Senate passed the bill 80-17, with 33 Republican votes.

© Washington Post

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