WASHINGTON – Florida’s Democrat and Republican lawmakers were understandably frustrated when President Donald Trump and Congress started playing politics with disaster aid. It had been a full six months since Hurricane Michael slammed into the Panhandle, snapping trees in half for miles, washing away beach communities, and tanking the tourism economy.
That frustration turned into shock when the federal disaster aid package came up for a final vote and two Republican congressmen representing Florida voted “no.”
“Those two have to be nuts,” said Allan Bense, a former Republican Speaker of the Florida House who is part of a bipartisan charity effort to rebuild communities devastated by the Category 5 storm that hit October 8.
Bense, who hails from storm-damaged Panama City, was talking about Republican U.S. Reps. Greg Steube and Francis Rooney. Both Steube and Rooney represent southwest Florida districts where their constituents were hit by Hurricane Irma in 2017. (Steube’s sprawling district stretches from Fort Myers to Tampa and east to Port St. Lucie; Rooney’s spans communities from Fort Myers to Marco Island.)
Steube and Rooney were among 58 Republicans in Congress to vote against the bill. Both said they couldn’t endorse the aid package’s hefty price tag. The $19.1 billion package will go to help numerous American communities hit by tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes and other catastrophes.
Former Democratic Florida congresswoman Gwen Graham co-chairs the charity effort to rebuild the Panhandle with Bense.
“After a Cat 5 storm destroyed part of their own state, @gregsteube and @RepRooney voted against helping their fellow Floridians,” she tweeted. “Putting politics over people is abhorrent. They are both unfit to represent Florida. I hope other Rs in the Florida delegation call them out. Shameful.”
And: “58. 58 Members of the House of Representatives voted AGAINST the disaster relief bill that includes Hurricane #Michael assistance. I knew that the delay was not the act of a lone GOP member. But, honestly, I am surprised at the number 58. Shame on each one of them.”
The optics of Republicans delaying and opposing disaster aid for Americans reeling from catastrophes aren’t great, particularly in Florida, where elections are often nail-biters and hurricanes are a regular part of life. Before the final June 3 vote on the federal aid package, it came up in the U.S. House of Representatives for a voice vote three times. Each time, a single Republican voted no, dooming passage.
Some observers say the political spectacle surrounding the delay could come back to bite the GOP.
“You bet it will hurt Republicans in Florida and every other part of this country that has suffered and that looks to Washington for relief,” Democratic U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, who represents southeast Florida, told the Florida Phoenix this week in an interview.
Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the newsletter Inside Elections, said the GOP stalling on disaster aid could tip the scales in 2020 races.
“In close races, everything matters,” he told the Phoenix this week. “If the races in Florida are as close as they usually are, then this has the potential to make a difference.”
Still, he said, “We’re also a year and a half from the election and it’s difficult to isolate single issues as the deciding factor in a long, complex campaign.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor says she was caught off guard when Steube and Rooney voted no on disaster aid for Florida, and that her fellow Florida delegation members hadn’t said anything about problems with the bill.
“Disaster aid used to be bipartisan, it used to work, the Congress was able to respond to these catastrophes,” she said. “I fear for the future because we know we’re going to have more intense flooding, we’re going to experience more wildfires, more intense hurricanes and we’ve got to be able to respond,” adding, “I thought we were united.”
“I was surprised,” Deutch said. “I’m not sure anything should surprise me coming out of my colleagues anymore, but given the devastation and given that we live in a place where we know that there’s going to be another occasion for us to have to tackle this issue, it sure is surprising that anyone – from our state, especially – would decide that somehow it’s good politics to oppose aid getting to the people desperately in need of it.”
Two South Florida Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Alcee Hastings and Frederica Wilson, did not vote on the aid bill. Their offices did not respond to requests for comment about why they missed the vote. The other 23 members of Florida’s House delegation voted in support of the aid package.
Former Florida House Speaker Bense has been working on the bipartisan Hurricane Michael recovery initiative called REBUILD 850 (named for the 850 area code).
He says the number of homeless children in the region has skyrocketed and his neighbors are strained dealing with property damage and difficult insurance companies.
“We’re just doing the best we can, but our tax base up here is not nearly as strong as it is down in Central [and] South Florida,” he said. “In Northwest Florida, we’re just poor-ass people. Farmers got their crops wiped out and we just don’t have much luck getting money.”