A move by Republicans to quickly pass a GOP-designed package of tax relief for those hit by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria was rejected by the House on Monday evening, when the bill failed to get a two-thirds vote for fast-track approval, as a small group of Republicans joined with most Democrats to vote against the plan, amid complaints of what was in – and not in – the measure.
The vote was 245-171 – a majority – but less than the two-thirds needed for expedited approval under a process that is normally reserved for non-controversial legislation.
“There are people out there who need the help,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), who pleaded with lawmakers to approve the aid package, telling stories of the devastation in his district, which includes the Florida Keys.
“It’s been a tough couple of weeks in my community,” Curbelo said on the House floor.
Democrats argued the plan didn’t do enough to help those in need, especially with fresh reports of the extensive damage in Puerto Rico, which was hit last week by Hurricane Maria.
“We are coming up short on our responsibility,” said Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), who labeled the tax aid plan, “anemic.”
“We should be sitting down here in the next 48 hours and putting together a massive package of relief,” Neal added.
Democrats also pointed out that the tax relief would be available only for recent hurricanes, and not for victims of Hurricane Sandy, opening an old wound in the halls of Congress, where Democrats feel like victims of that disaster were denied quick help by GOP lawmakers in the Congress.
“Front page of the papers in New Jersey today, people are still not back in their homes from Hurricane Sandy in 2013,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), who complained that Republicans had taken tax relief provisions out of a bill he had authored – which was targeted for Sandy victims – and used them in the GOP measure to help those hit by Harvey, Irma and Maria.
While most Democrats were against the plan, 26 Democrats voted for the bill, which combined disaster tax relief with provisions to extend the authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration, and separate sections to spur the creation of a private market for federal flood insurance.
Those extra flood insurance provisions though created opposition in both parties.
“I don’t understand how the program is going to have the resources to pay the claims,” said Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), an expert on hurricane prep and flood insurance, as he said these new provisions spurring a private market “undermines” the existing federal flood insurance program.
Republican leaders in the House have several options on this bill – they can consult with Democrats and find a bipartisan deal, or they can keep the provisions the same, and bring the bill up under regular order, and pass it later this week with a simple majority.
The House vote to stop the tax relief package for hurricane victims came amid growing rumblings of concern in the Congress about the level of aid being offered to several million Americans who live on the island of Puerto Rico.
“A territory of 3.5 million American citizens is almost completely without power, water, food, and telephone service, and we have a handful of helicopters involved in DOD’s response,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) of the U.S. military response to the disaster.
“It's a disgrace,” Smith added.
At the White House, officials turned aside talk that the administration response has been less than needed.
“We’ve done unprecedented movement in terms of federal funding to provide for the people of Puerto Rico and others that have been impacted [by] these storms,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.