In retrospect, it may have been a pipe dream to expect the U.S. House of Representatives would unanimously endorse the $19.1 billion disaster relief bill approved by the Senate Thursday in a simple voice vote Friday before adjourning for their Memorial Day recess.
Nothing so simple can pass without rancor – even a direly needed assistance package for natural disaster victims across the country – without first paying homage to the hyper-partisanship that defines the times.
Despite assurances from House leaders that adopting the long-awaited assistance package was a procedural slam-dunk, there was one flaw in the logic.
Since many Congressional representatives have already left Washington for the week-long recess, adopting the massive aid bill required a unanimous voice vote during a pro forma session – essentially, a brief meeting with a quorum to cast a binding vote if no one objects.
U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, objected, and that was that.
“The U.S. House tried to pass #DisasterRelief bill by voice vote but, unfortunately, it had one member object,” Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted shortly after the vote. “This means bill will not head to @potus until the full House votes on it. They are adjourned until Tuesday, May 28th, so that is the earliest it will be voted on.”
Roy, a former chief legislative aid for Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, told reporters before voting "no" that he was upset the bill does not include the $4.5 billion for border security requested by President Donald Trump.
Roy said the money was needed to help the Department of Health & Human Services process migrants being detained in his San Antonio area district.
“The people, particularly in Texas, but people generally, are tired of the swamp and this is a very swampy thing to do – have a vote on a Friday heading into Memorial Day weekend and after we recess, when we could have done our job yesterday when we had 435 members of Congress who should be here and should vote,” Roy said.
While Roy’s objection is procedural and the delay should only be temporary, it drew strong rebukes from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Florida congressional representatives and Panhandle residents still reeling from being pounded by Category 5 Hurricane Michael last October, who posted Roy’s phone number and encouraged angry residents to give him a call.
“House Republicans’ last-minute sabotage of an overwhelmingly bipartisan disaster relief bill is an act of staggering political cynicism,” Pelosi said in a statement. “Countless American families hit by devastating natural disasters across the country will now be denied the relief they urgently need.”
“Thousands of Americans across the country, including in Florida and Puerto Rico, need immediate disaster recovery assistance,” tweeted Rep. Val Demings, D-Orlando. “That critical relief has bipartisan support and the support of the president, but it was just blocked by House Republicans. Outrageous.”
Approved in an 85-8 vote by the Senate Thursday afternoon, the package includes assistance for victims of natural disasters across the country since 2017, ranging from Midwest floods to California wildfires to hurricanes in the Southeast.
The bill includes $1.67 billion to repair Tyndall Air Force Base, $2.4 billion in Community Development Block Grants [CDBG] disaster relief funding, $1.65 billion to rebuild damaged highways, $600 in economic assistance programs, $480 million for timber restoration and $150 million for fishery losses that Panhandle residents, businesses and governments can tap into.
The bill also extends the National Flood Insurance Program, which was set to expire at the end of the month, through Sept. 30.
The package had been mired in partisan gridlock for months, first over Trump’s insistence that it include $4.5 billion for border security and then over House Democrats’ demand that it include assistance for Puerto Rico for its continued recovery from Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Despite not including money for the border wall and allocating $1.4 billion for Puerto Rico — including $600 million for disaster nutrition assistance — that he opposed, Trump told reporters Thursday at the White House he would sign it.
“We’ll get the immigration money later, according to everybody,” he said. “I have to take care of my farmers with disaster relief. I didn’t want to hold that up any longer. So, the answer is I totally support it.”