Florida presses for federal dollars after Irma, but budget hawks resist

By Alex Daugherty

McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Many members of Florida’s congressional delegation couldn’t be in Washington for votes Tuesday, as the state began a massive cleanup after Hurricane Irma. But that hasn’t stopped them from pressing colleagues who were spared Irma’s wrath to join in their quest for federal help.

Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the only member from Florida in office when Hurricane Andrew made landfall 25 years ago, is urging Washington to treat her state as it did Texas just a week ago.

“Carlos Curbelo and I are determined to go back to D.C. and work with our colleagues to find the funds needed for the hurricane relief efforts,” Ros-Lehtinen said at a news conference. “We found it for Hurricane Harvey, we’re going to band together and find it for the residents who are survivors of Hurricane Irma.”

But efforts to spend billions on hurricane relief will likely meet resistance from conservative Republicans who bristle at any new spending that doesn’t include corresponding cuts elsewhere. For them, Florida’s storm damage is a secondary concern to the long-term consequences of increasing the federal deficit.

“The unsustainable national debt remains the greatest existential threat to our nation that is routinely ignored in Washington,” Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling said in a statement. “Emergency funding should not come to the House without an opportunity to propose offsets, a number of which can easily be found in President Trump’s budget.”

Last week, Hensarling, along with 106 Republicans in the House and Senate, voted against a $15.25 billion Hurricane Harvey relief bill that was coupled with an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling and a measure to keep the government funded for a short period, signaling that a faction of conservatives will likely vote against billions in Irma relief if they deem the money isn’t directly related to storm recovery.

“The extremists in the Republican conference who somehow think we should be offsetting the cost of an emergency don’t understand the concept of an emergency,” Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said. “It was the largest storm to hit the state in modern times. We are going to need significant relief and recovery.”

But despite the opposition, Miami-Dade’s congressional delegation, including Ros-Lehtinen, Curbelo, Wasserman Schultz, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Rep. Frederica Wilson, and Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson are united in getting attention, and funding, for Florida.

“I spoke to Speaker Ryan last night and we were talking about how we have to get FEMA funded,” Wasserman Schultz said. “There’s no question that we’re going to need an emergency supplemental. He’s already put people on notice.”

Wasserman Schultz said it’s impossible to even ballpark how much money Florida will need from the federal government. The cleanup is just beginning, and the immediate priorities are restoring power and getting fuel into the state. Those efforts don’t require additional funding from Congress.

Nelson and Rubio have teamed up for a variety of news conferences and events before and after the storm, notably a flyover of the Florida Keys with Coast Guard personnel Monday to view the damage and recovery efforts.

On Monday, the pair sent a letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, urging the former Texas governor to create a fuel reserve in Florida to help the state weather future gasoline shortages. Rubio and Nelson noted that the Department of Energy created a similar reserve in 2014 for New York and New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy.

“Florida is vulnerable to both extreme storms and fuel supply disruptions,” the letter said. “A Florida Gasoline Supply Reserve would ensure that residents and first responders have access to an emergency supply of fuel and help prevent the shortages that may have kept some from evacuating and may hinder recover efforts going forward.”

The entire Miami-Dade House delegation also signed on to a letter that asks the federal government to quickly reopen and repair PortMiami and Ros-Lehtinen is leading a letter to urge congressional leaders to come and view Irma’s destruction themselves. The Congressional Black Caucus sent a similar letter on Tuesday.

And while Congress begins a long funding debate, Wasserman Schulz said conservatives who support money for storm cleanup but say any long-term storm mitigation efforts must not be included in a relief bill are off base.

“Making an argument like that is … irresponsible hair splitting and short-sighted,” Wasserman Schultz said. “The more storm mitigation that we can fund, the less likely we’re going to have a huge impact on us the next time it comes.”