$19.1 billion in nationwide disaster aid stalls in House after single Republican objects
WASHINGTON - A House Republican lawmaker blocked a $19.1 billion disaster aid package on Friday, delaying a bill that would send federal funding to disaster-affected areas across the country.
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, voted to block the legislation, which has the support of President Donald Trump and easily passed the Senate on Thursday. His move was met with immediate criticism, including from Republicans representing disaster areas where millions have been waiting for federal help for months.
Roy said he was objecting to the bill because it would add to the country's debt, as well as because it left out $4.4 billion in additional spending for federal operations along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"This is a bill that includes nothing to address the clear national emergency and humanitarian crisis we face at our southern border," Roy said in a near empty House chamber, adding: "We've got emergency requests right now from the administration."
The White House had initially pushed lawmakers to include the new funding in the disaster bill, but the funds were left out of a Senate compromised reached this week to move the aid package forward. Roy described the $4.4 billion as "quite modest."
Following Roy's objection, the House ended its session. The House is set to have another "pro forma" session - one with few lawmakers present - on Tuesday, at which time they plan to again try to pass the legislation by unanimous consent.
"We'll see," Roy said when asked whether he would object again. "I have not decided what I'm going to do next week, but I also have a job to do back in Texas."
The full House is not due back in Washington until June 3.
Roy's objection to the disaster aid bill further delays legislation that would send aid to victims of Western wildfires, Midwestern flooding and hurricanes that hit the Southeast and Puerto Rico, as well as to other disaster-affected areas across the country.
Many House Republicans are frustrated that Roy blocked the bill, said Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., who represents a district where farmers were devastated by Hurricane Michael last fall and are awaiting aid.
"I think it was ridiculous. I think it was a political stunt. In the end, he hurt himself and his ability to get anything done for his constituents more than anything else," Scott said in an interview.
Scott said he was relieved the legislation had overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate, noting lawmakers were closer to finishing the bill than they have been in months. But he added he did not understand why Roy would delay a bill that is expected to pass without additional changes. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., also wrote on Twitter that "our farmers need aid today," while adding he recognized procedural concerns.
"We know the president supports the bill and that makes it that much more ridiculous," Scott said. "It's not like he's trying to get a change made to the language."
Roy, when asked whether Trump or House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had attempted to dissuade him from objecting, said he did not want to discuss private conversations.
As Roy took the floor, Democrats appeared visibly frustrated as they saw their plans crumble.
"Texas gets money from this," said House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., as he made an expression of disbelief. The aid package includes relief funding for flooding in central Texas.
Democrats said they did not know before this morning of Roy's plans. Roy said he called Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., on Friday morning to let him know of his plans.
Roy, 46, is a freshman lawmaker but no stranger to Capitol Hill and the highest levels of conservative politics. He was chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in 2013 when Cruz helped force a partial government shutdown.
"He was a Ted Cruz staff person, and Ted Cruz voted for [the bill] yesterday," said Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla. "So I guess he didn't learn anything from Ted Cruz."
Roy ran for the House last year after veteran GOP Rep. Lamar Smith announced his retirement. He emerged from an 18-person primary to represent a district that includes part of the Austin and San Antonio suburbs as well as a stretch of rural Texas's "Hill Country."
Despite the backlash, some on the right praised Roy for stalling the legislation. Erick Erickson, the conservative editor of The Resurgent, called Roy a "hero" for forcing a debate over government spending.
"I've had nothing, for the most part, but 'attaboys' from people around the House who have flown home and did not know a consent request was going to be done and are saying, 'Thank you, I would have stayed and objected, too,'" Roy said.
The Senate voted 85 to 8 to advance the bill Thursday. Hours later, Trump wrote on Twitter that the measure had his "total approval."
The disaster-aid bill has been pending since last year, and the slow pace of talks has frustrated lawmakers of both parties, especially as past disaster bills have often been bipartisan and rarely featured the delays or rancor that have accompanied this one.
For much of that time, the main sticking point has been a struggle over Puerto Rico between Democrats - who pushed for more aid to the island - and Trump, who has spent months complaining about fiscal mismanagement by the territory's government and has drastically overstated the sums sent to the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
Puerto Rico, which is still trying to recover from the 2017 hurricane, would receive more than $1 billion under the package, according to a House Democratic aide. That includes $600 million in emergency funding for Puerto Rico's food stamp program, as well as more than $300 million to help the island cover costs for infrastructure repair projects.
House Democrats ripped Roy for the additional delay. "After President Trump and Senate Republicans delayed disaster relief for more than four months, it is deeply disappointing that House Republicans are now making disaster victims wait even longer to get the help they need," said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., in a statement. "We must pass this bicameral, bipartisan bill and we will keep working to get it through the House and onto the President's desk."
Roy has been circulating a letter among Republicans that solicits support for adhering to spending caps that were put in place nearly 10 years ago. The White House, Democrats and many Republicans have shown a willingness to raise the spending caps to secure a budget agreement and avoid a government shutdown at the end of September, but Roy is among a group of at least 40 House Republicans who vocally oppose such a deal. If the caps aren't increased, many federal agencies would see large budget cuts beginning in October.
During his House campaign, Roy promised to stick to conservative ideals, even if they rankle GOP leaders - promising during his campaign, for instance, to support hard-right Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, for speaker over McCarthy. Roy ultimately voted for McCarthy. Roy has previously served as a top deputy to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is leading a multistate lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act.
But Roy could be inviting political peril by stalling the disaster bill. The move puts him at odds with Trump, who publicly supported the deal Thursday, in a district where the president is popular among Republican primary voters. And Roy barely won his general election, with 50.2 percent of the vote. His district is rapidly becoming more suburban and is in a state that has recently benefited from billions of dollars in federal disaster funds following Hurricane Harvey and other floods.
Talking to reporters Thursday, Roy further bristled at the House approving the measure without lawmakers present.
"The people are tired of the swamp and this is a very swampy thing to do," Roy said.
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