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Divided House Republicans Stall Vote on Storm Relief Aid for Sandy Victims

January 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
An emergency aid package to provide relief funds for victims of Hurricane Sandy got stalled in Congress as Republicans insisted on offsetting the $60 billion in aid with spending cuts before voting. Judy Woodruff talks to Roll Call's Steven Dennis and Washington Post's Neil Irwin about the consequences of that decision.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And that was, after the vote on the fiscal cliff, there was another, a different spending spat that divided the Republican Party. House Republican leaders refused to take up an aid package for victims of Hurricane Sandy, which the president had called for and the Senate had approved earlier.

From the moment the House convened today, bipartisan anger filled the chamber. Lawmakers from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut said the failure to vote on Hurricane Sandy aid was a betrayal.

REP. PETER KING, R-N.Y.: We cannot believe that this cruel knife in the back was delivered to our region.

REP. ROSA DELAURO, D-Conn.: They said, you are on your own. My friends, our people cannot be on their own.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Senate approved a $60 billion storm recovery measure last Friday. House leaders had been considering a pared-down version, when Speaker John Boehner pulled the bill last night.

A number of Republicans had insisted on offsetting spending cuts. But Boehner’s decision was lambasted by New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, who charged storm victims have already waited too long.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, R-N.J.: America deserves better than just another example of a government that has forgotten who they are there to serve and why — 66 days and counting. Shame on you. Shame on Congress. It is why the American people hate Congress. It’s why they hate them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And President Obama pressed for action in a written statement.

It read, in part: “I urge Republicans in the House of Representatives to bring this important request to a vote today, and pass it without delay for our fellow Americans.”

This afternoon, Speaker Boehner met with the New York and New Jersey delegations. And Congressman King of New York emerged later to say they’d gotten what they want after all.

PETER KING: Nine billion dollars on flood insurance this Friday will be voted on. And then, on January 15, the first full legislative day, there will be the additional $51 billion will be voted on, and that will come to a total of $60 billion, which was what the total was in the bill that was supposed to be voted on this week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The votes will be taken by the new Congress that’s due to be sworn in tomorrow.

Still here with us are Steven Dennis of Roll Call and Neil Irwin of The Washington Post.

And, Steven, Governor Christie was very angry, Congressman King, others from the Northeast very angry. What happened here?

STEVEN DENNIS: And it was almost — it was amazing to see almost a meltdown on the House floor last night, with all of these members, Republican members, coming to the House floor and just ripping into their leadership, saying they felt they had been lied to, that they were going to get this before they went home. And then it went poof.

And, basically, our understanding is the speaker basically decided, look, we just had this big fight over the fiscal cliff. Everybody is angry about the lack of spending cuts. And then we’re going to have a bill that spends $30 billion or $60 billion, depending on which bill they ended up bringing to the floor.

I think that that was something that, you know, ended up being a P.R. nightmare for them to have hour after hour, whether it be Chris Christie or Pete King or whoever going on the news and saying, hey, don’t give any money to the Republican Party if you’re in New York or New Jersey.

And, within a day, they backpedaled, and, you know, this thing is going to start — on Friday, they’re going to get $10 billion and…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Changed his mind very quickly.

STEVEN DENNIS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They are going to vote. In a couple of weeks, they will vote on the rest of it. So they are going to apparently get this money now.

STEVEN DENNIS: Yes, but it does show a difference between the Republican Party today and where they were during Katrina.

They passed Katrina aid, a big package, in a week. You know, this new party needs — you know, they want those cuts. They’re not happy with just spending tens of billions of dollars without anything offsetting it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Neil Irwin, how much money are we talking about here for Hurricane Sandy? The number was $60 billion — $60 billion. It sounds like a lot of money. What. But in the scheme…

NEIL IRWIN: It’s a lot of money. It’s $60 billion. It’s a lot of money by any measure.

But we’re a government that spends $2 trillion a year. We’re in a $15 trillion economy. And the thing to remember, that’s emergency spending. It is one time. It doesn’t change the structural long-term deficit picture by much. So, it’s not a huge number in the scheme of things.

But it gets back to this ideological issue of, OK, when something bad happens and we have a devastating storm, is the government going to write a check and help that area and help people rebuild and spend whatever it takes to do that, or are we going to have a long, contentious legislative debate to figure out how to offset that spending elsewhere?

And that ideological debate really came up at an inopportune time for a Republican Party that is already frayed in a lot of ways.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I know some of the Republicans were saying this money should have been offset with spending cuts, and it wasn’t. Or it won’t be, I guess, is the view right now.

NEIL IRWIN: It appears that way. I think the situation is still in flux even as we speak. And we will see how it shakes out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, that’s one of the things that didn’t get done. It is going to be reversed.

But there were other things, Neil, that people are looking at the overall impact of this legislation and saying, wait a minute. The deficit reduction is what? We were originally talking at the $4 trillion level. Where does it end up?

NEIL IRWIN: Well, it depends on how you count, whether you count assuming that the entire Bush tax cuts had stayed in place and there had been no change or if your baseline is instead the expiration of those cuts that had been envisioned.

Either way you slight it, though, this is not a huge deficit reduction. This is really about the president getting his way to a degree on taxes, and the Republicans getting those Bush tax cuts locked in and getting some other things they like to see.

This is not changing in a major way — this is not the long-term deficit reduction bill the nation will eventually need. This isn’t the long-term tax reform deal we might need. This is not fixing a lot of the long-term problems we face. This is a deal to get us to see another day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Steven, that means that they have got — we know there are other fights coming. They have put off the so-called sequester vote, these automatic across-the-board spending cuts. That’s going to come up pretty quickly.

STEVEN DENNIS: Well, I think actually this thing deal makes it harder to do the next deal and harder to do the big deal, because they have now taken a big carrot for Democrats, these tax revenues, those are out the door.

And Republicans are going to be much less likely to have additional revenue. The president wanted $1.2. trillion. Is he going to get another $600 billion in a couple of months out of this House Republicans? I don’t think so.

So — and you have this debt ceiling. You have a debt ceiling looming in a couple months. John Boehner has something called the Boehner rule, which I think is going to become the new fiscal cliff keyword. The Boehner rule says, hey, do you want $1 in deficit increase? I want $1 in deficit cuts. I want $1 in spending cuts.

And the president is saying, I’m not going to negotiate at all. So — and that strikes in two months. You know, that’s — somebody’s going to have to give on that, and you know, it could get really ugly really fast.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If you’re — Neil Irwin, if you’re looking at this economy right now and looking at this legislation, does it have an impact on the American economy, on unemployment?

NEIL IRWIN: It does. So there are some mild negatives that come from the higher taxes, especially the payroll tax credit that we — or payroll tax holiday we talked about. Even higher income tax rates are negative for growth.

That said, this economy has been plugging along. What Steve is talking about are some really dangerous things, which is we’re heading now into another standoff over the debt ceiling. We all remember how that worked out in August of 2011. It hurt business confidence. It floated this possibility of a federal government default.

We had a credit downgrade of the U.S. credit rating. Those were all things that really undermined business confidence and made 2011 a worse year than it otherwise would have been. The risk now is that in this next round of brinksmanship and negotiation, we might see that all over again.

Let’s hope that this is a crisper series of negotiations that aren’t quite as scary for businesses and the economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, in a word, Steven, is that something that members on both sides and the White House are prepared to do?

STEVEN DENNIS: I see a lot more brinksmanship.

I think it could get very, very ugly. And there’s — we might yet test that theory that it’s going to take the markets freaking out again before they come up with another deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We can all only hope that that’s not going to happen.

Steven Dennis, Neil Irwin, we thank you both.

NEIL IRWIN: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s more on all this online, including a way for you to see how your state’s congressional delegation voted.