WASHINGTON — For at least a decade, Thursdays on Capitol Hill meant one thing: the Texas GOP delegation lunch.
Thanks to the size of the GOP House voting bloc from Texas, major policy can live or die over that weekly lunch. But on Thursday, weeks after a hurricane flooded large parts of Southeast Texas, the Texas Democrats joined the Republicans. The full delegation – 36 House members and two U.S. senators – met over Mexican food to plot how they would leverage their seniority and size to advocate for Hurricane Harvey funding.
"There are many issues, but the point is that I want to make is that we are going to work together to make sure that we resolve this people issue and keep politics out of it," U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, told reporters at a news conference organized by U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston.
As long as Republicans control the U.S. House and Senate, Texas is the most powerful delegation on the Hill – thanks to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn's position as Senate majority whip, the state's seven U.S. House committee chairmen and four Texans – three Republicans and one Democrat – currently serving on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee.
The Texas delegation spent most of Thursday presenting a united, bipartisan front to the public, and the message was clear: The members are readying their legislative firepower to advocate for the parts of the state devastated by Harvey.
In the near term, the two chambers aim to get a short-term funding bill for Harvey relief to President Donald Trump, and then address a larger package once the gravity of the destruction is known.
On Wednesday, the House passed a bill that would fund nearly $8 billion in Harvey relief. Not long after the vote, Republican members were shocked to learn that Trump cut a deal with Democratic leaders to tie that emergency funding to other measures, including raising the government's debt limit and agreeing to fund the government past a Sept. 30 deadline.
Republicans were livid, charging that their party had just lost its leverage to push for budget cuts.
But the Senate moved forward on Thursday with the deal, voting to lift the debt ceiling, continuing to fund the government and increasing the short-term Harvey funding to $15.25 billion.
"This funding will serve as an initial first step towards helping Texans begin the process of rebuilding," Cornyn said in a statement. "I'll continue to work with federal, state, and local officials to ensure Texas gets the resources we need to recover from this devastating hurricane.”
Cruz called the marriage of Harvey relief to raising the debt ceiling and a continuing resolution to fund the government "unfortunate."
“Historically, the CR and debt ceiling have proven to be the only effective leverage for meaningful spending reform, and I believe we should continue to use them as tools to reduce our long-term debt," he said in a statement. I would have much preferred a clean Harvey relief bill — which would have passed both Houses nearly unanimously.”
Cornyn and Cruz spent part of the day at the delegation lunch, which was organized by U.S. Reps. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, and Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. Together, the delegation spoke with Gov. Greg Abbott on a conference call.
Members emerged from the meeting with high spirits and a rare sense of bipartisanship.
“It’s a really big undertaking, but it’s not so large that we can’t do it if we remain Texas strong, Texas strong means Texans working together, we are doing it now, we intend to continue, and we intend to meet the challenge," U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, said at a news conference later in the day.
Cuellar indicated that another delegation-wide meeting was on the docket next week, and he hoped for the practice to become a more regular habit.
Along with funding, Texas members said they plan to advocate for various policy goals amid the Harvey cleanup. And even though the bipartisan sentiment was strong, some of the suggestions are sure to bring about dissent in the delegation:
U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, prioritized rebuilding the infrastructure and clearing brush and debris.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, advocated for ensuring FEMA will be staffed for the duration of the cleanup, and providing adequate aid for small businesses to return to the region.
Poe and U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, hinted at pursuing a major infrastructure project to deal with Houston-area flood control. Poe, specifically, called for finding a way to direct flood water into the Gulf of Mexico.
Al Green advocated for housing aid through community development grants and an emphasis on removing trash from streets.
Al Green also suggested new legislation should ensure flood insurance premiums are low so people can get coverage after they rebuild. That will probably put him at odds with U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, who chairs the U.S. House Financial Services Committee they both serve on, and has called for reforming the program.
U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He floated the notion of lifting tax penalties on retirement accounts if the money is used for hurricane rebuilding. His Democratic colleague on the committee, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin, called for tax cuts for the working poor victims of the storm.
Cuellar called on the Texas Legislature — a body he once served in — to "look at tapping into the Rainy Day Fund," a state savings account that holds about $10 billion. Cuellar, who serves on the powerful U.S. House Appropriations Committee, said he and his fellow Texas appropriators – Republican U.S. Reps. John Carter of Round Rock, Culberson and Kay Granger of Fort Worth, "are going to do everything we can to provide the funding" from the federal level as well.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, aimed for greater oversight of the environmental protection arms of the state and federal governments to ensure safe air and water in the region as the cleanup continues.
U.S. Reps. Brian Babin, R-Woodville, Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, and Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, also attended the news conference. Every single member present spoke about a commitment to bipartisan unity.
But members of Congress often promise to set aside political differences in the wake of a crisis – whether it is a disaster like Hurricane Harvey or the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or the shooting of colleagues, like former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and current U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana.
And then, after a few weeks, the partisans return to their corners.
How can this be any different?
Olson and Gonzalez, a Republican and Democrat, walked away from the news conference together and headed to the House chamber for votes.
Asked if the bipartisan tone was new for the delegation, Olson said that the foundation already existed, but in a more subtle way.
Gonzalez added that his friendship with Olson is rooted in transportation – his commute to Washington goes through the Houston airports.
"We fly together," he said.
"Nothing has changed. We've gotten closer, for sure, but we have the same bond that most states are jealous of," Olson added.
Read related Tribune coverage:
Experts say the flooding in the Houston region could have wreaked far less havoc if local officials had made different decisions over the last several decades. But the former head of a key flood control agency strongly disagreed with that take in an interview last year. [Full story]
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, an exploding chemical plant and spikes in cancer-causing emissions are highlighting how little the public knows about potential dangers from the oil and chemical industries. Critics say one reason for the darkness: tons of campaign money. [Full story]
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has chosen John Sharp, chancellor of Texas A&M University and a former longtime Democratic elected official, to lead the rebuilding effort in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. [Full story]