Overcoming opposition from most Republicans, including all those from the Pittsburgh area, the House approved $50.7 billion in new disaster relief Tuesday in a 241-180 vote to help repair damage Superstorm Sandy caused more than two months ago.
The vote followed the unorthodox pattern of the tax deal that temporarily resolved the "fiscal cliff" dilemma in Congress two weeks ago, with every Democrat joining Republicans from areas affected by the October storm and a few GOP leaders to approve the relief package. Congress awarded the emergency aid notwithstanding complaints from conservatives who said the spending should have been balanced with cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.
Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, had been alone among Western Pennsylvania Republicans in opposing a storm relief package in a vote last week, but he was joined Tuesday night by Reps. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, Mike Kelly, R-Butler, and Bill Shuster, R-Blair.
"Unfortunately, the package voted on today results in another $50 billion borrowed from our kids and grandkids. Moving forward, I will work with my colleagues to craft better ways to budget and pay for future natural disaster relief," Mr. Rothfus said.
The Senate had already agreed to the emergency aid and is expected to approve the House plan in the next week. Overall, the House approved $60 billion in aid, short of the $82 billion requested by a bipartisan group of state and federal officials, including Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York.
To appease fiscal conservatives, the House GOP leadership had allowed votes on a raft of amendments seeking to chop out some of the aid package or balance it with cuts to other federal spending. The highest-profile amendment, from Rep. Mike Mulvaney, R-S.C., would have paid for $17 billion in hurricane relief with a 1.63 percent across-the-board cut in discretionary federal spending this year.
One major problem with Mr. Mulvaney's proposal, noted the conservative Heritage Foundation and others, is that it would have cut $9 billion from the defense budget as it is already facing a $500 billion cut March 1 under the congressional deficit-reduction plan known as the sequester. The amendment failed, 258-162, even though two-thirds of the Republican caucus voted in favor of it -- including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin -- as well as Mr. Murphy and Mr. Rothfus.
On Wednesday afternoon, the House's Republican leaders brought two funding bills to the floor, totaling $50.7 billion in new funds -- one for $17 billion, from Appropriations Committee chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., and another for $33.7 billion, from Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.
Mr. Rogers' amendment was the less debated of the two, containing $5 billion for repairing transit systems damaged by the October storm and $5.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund. Mr. Rothfus opposed it, although most Republicans, including Mr. Kelly and Mr. Murphy, approved it.
Tea Party and other conservatives' voices were especially incensed about the Frelinghuysen measure, which they contended was filled with wasteful spending unnecessary to bail out Sandy victims. It included $336 million for the perpetually broke Amtrak railway system and other longterm infrastructure spending not targeted toward pressing needs.
The limited-government group Club For Growth, which supported Mr. Rothfus's campaign last year, urged Congress to vote down the two bills, and said it would factor the rollcall into its endorsements in 2014. "Disasters may be unpredictable, but we know with 100 percent certainty that they will occur," the organization said in a statement. "Therefore, Congress shouldn't keep passing massive 'emergency' relief bills that aren't paid for, have little oversight and are stuffed with pork. Also, Congress shouldn't use disasters like Hurricane Sandy as an excuse to spend billions on longterm projects that should be considered during the regular appropriations process."
Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., said there were at least 30 House conservatives opposing the relief bills whose regions had received disaster funds in the recent past. "Why should New Jersey and New York be treated any differently?" he asked. "My friends should ask themselves what would they would do if this was your district."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called for bipartisan support for the relief funds. "Let us do our part to honor the social compact that we have with the American people, that the federal government will be there is a time of emergency," she said.
Mr. Rothfus provoked heavy local criticism last week when, in his first major vote since taking office, he opposed the first plank of Sandy relief aid, in the form of $9.7 billion in national flood insurance funds. Mr. Rothfus had worked on religious-based Hurricane Katrina relief efforts while part of the George W. Bush administration in 2005, but said this time that the flood funding should have been balanced with spending cuts elsewhere. Among Pennsylvania Republicans, only he and another conservative freshman, Scott Perry of York, opposed the bill.
"I want to vote for Hurricane Sandy disaster relief funding. I simply believe we should try to pay for the spending," he said Tuesday in a letter to the editor published by the Post-Gazette.mobilehome - nation
Tim McNulty: email@example.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.