The aftermath of Superstorm Sandy for Northeastern lawmakers comes down to: Show us the money.
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are getting ready do just that early next week in a series of votes for $50 billion in spending to relieve the hard-hit Northeast.
Although the bills, fueled by Northeastern members’ outrage at a canceled House vote late last month, are, at the moment, expected to pass, the specter of conservative demands for offsetting cuts also hovers.
So far, federal funding efforts on Sandy disaster relief have been one hard slog. No one knows that better than Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss.
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The second-term lawmaker from the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast has been singled out by the aggressive New York-New Jersey media scrum for having voted Jan. 4 against a boost to the flood insurance program _ $9.7 billion in borrowing to pay for insured homes and businesses. Palazzo joined 66 other conservatives in opposing it at a time of budget deficits.
Palazzo landed on the front page of the New York Daily News – “Flood You!” _ and became a household name on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” with "hypocrite" among the more polite terms, as well as being pilloried in Mississippi for failing to give New York and New Jersey the same kind of national rescue that the Gulf Coast got after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Palazzo pretty quickly reversed course, even visiting damaged sites in New Jersey with a local Republican congressman, and in Staten Island with almost no notice to local member Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y. Palazzo also embraced the next spending package, pledging support even if the bills don’t have funding offsets from cuts in other federal programs.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., boosted Palazzo on Tuesday by giving him a key new assignment.
“As the representative of the Katrina-damaged Mississippi Gulf Coast, Steven Palazzo is the natural leader for disaster relief reform in the 113th Congress,” Cantor said in a news release issued by Palazzo’s office announcing the Mississippian’s newfound support for disaster funding.
But some Republican House aides , who asked that they not be named in order to speak candidly, said Cantor’s move was mainly a public-relations gesture to help Palazzo save face. The real force behind Republican House efforts to overhaul the flood-insurance program, which often runs out of money and must go begging to Congress for more, will be Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican who’s the new chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, according to the aides.
One initiative Hensarling will push, the aides said, is privatizing the flood-insurance program, a move that Republicans have tried to implement for other large federal programs.
Before lawmakers get to broad changes, however, they must first vote on more immediate relief for the Sandy victims.
There are still Republican members who won’t support the legislation, despite the pressure on the 67 Republicans who voted "no" on the flood insurance bill, arguably the least controversial portion of the package.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican who was among the 67 who opposed the $9.7 billion flood-insurance bill last week, said Friday that he’d offer amendments to the supplemental Sandy-relief package next week.
Mulvaney said his state had been hit by many hurricanes of its own and that providing relief to victims of large natural disasters “is a proper function of government.” But he said the cost of such aid must be offset with spending cuts in other areas.
“I know how important the supplemental relief is to those affected by Hurricane Sandy, but I believe we can provide that relief while finding ways to pay for it, rather than adding to our nation’s ballooning deficit,” Mulvaney said.
“Indeed, if we can’t come together under these tragic circumstances to find a way to pay for this relief, do we seriously believe we will have the political will to ever balance the budget?” he said.
In what promises to be a complicated series of machinations, congressional officials – including Mulvaney and John Stone, the chief of staff for Rep. John Carter, R-Texas – said the bill would be divided into several parts: $27 billion in disaster relief, which then will be amended to delete the $9.7 billion already approved for the flood insurance program, and then a vote on a larger, $33 billion amendment from a New Jersey lawmaker.
Many conservatives may be able to vote on what will be a $17 billion immediate relief package and balk at the $33 billion offered by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.
“Trying not to seem politically tone deaf on the issue is clearly a priority,” said Steve Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government watchdog group in Washington. “So this fiscally irresponsible package is what we get.”
Carter, a conservative who leads a House appropriations subcommittee and who voted for the flood insurance bill, is nonetheless resistant to the larger rescue package.
“I intend to vote for the additional $17 billion in disaster aid currently supported by the Appropriations Committee, along with ways to pay for that cost by cuts in other areas,” he said. “However, I will not vote for additional funds unless they are first fully justified as disaster aid.”