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In Harvey's Wake

U.S. House passes tax breaks for victims of Harvey, Irma and Maria

After back-and-forth sniping and a divided vote on a bill to help hurricane victims, the Texas delegation came together in a press conference and declared they're unified on the issue.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, in his office in the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., September 21, 2016.

In Harvey's Wake

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. House passed a measure Thursday morning that will lift tax penalties on Hurricane Harvey victims who tap into their retirement accounts and offer them other tax breaks. But the vote was not unanimous among Texas members of Congress, and it was not without tension.

The bill, which also includes victims of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, passed on a 264-155 vote. Most of the Texas delegation backed the bill, but four Democrats voted no, while U.S. Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, and Sam Johnson, R-Richardson, did not vote.  

The bill now goes to the U.S. Senate for consideration. If it becomes law, it will allow hurricane victims to receive tax-deductions on personal losses from the storm and ease penalties for those who pull money from their retirement accounts to cover storm-related costs. 

It was a messy piece of legislation, marrying the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration to the tax measure — along with smaller items like funding for a Native American diabetes program.

All Texas Republicans backed the bill, along with the House Democrats from Houston — U.S. Reps. Al Green, Gene Green and Sheila Jackson Lee — and U.S. Reps. Henry CuellarVicente Gonzalez and Filemon Vela from South Texas. But four Texas Democrats did not back the bill: U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, Lloyd Doggett of Austin, Beto O'Rourke of El Paso, Marc Veasey of Fort Worth.

Democrats who voted no gave varied reasons. Some were unhappy the tax breaks did not include other natural disasters, while others objected to the lack of hearings on the bill or the fact that it didn't include an extension for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Trump wants to terminate in the spring unless Congress can pass legislation to preserve it.

A previous version of the legislation failed on Monday night in the U.S. House. It needed a much higher threshold — two-thirds of the chamber — because the author of the bill, Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady of The Woodlands, aimed to move it through as an emergency measure. 

Brady, the chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, expressed his disappointment in a Monday night statement, calling the House Democrats' decision to mostly withhold support for his bill as "the very worst of Washington, putting politics ahead of people."  

He followed up with stronger wording on Tuesday afternoon. 

"The sick Democrats voted AGAINST tax relief for those affected by Harvey, instead of helping out families who have lost so much," he tweeted. 

It's the sense among some in Brady's sphere that the comment was directed at Texans, specifically, who did not back the bill. For weeks now, the delegation has presented itself as a united front in dealing with the storm. 

Vela moved from a no on Monday to a yes on Thursday, but he was was not pleased with Brady.

"Is he calling out the four Republicans who voted against Hurricane Harvey funding in the first place? is he calling them 'sick Republicans?' " Vela asked. 

The Harvey legislation also reignited a bitter regional fight between members from the northeast and Texas Republicans. A bipartisan group of members from New York and New Jersey have repeatedly expressed outrage at the Texans for backing legislation that supports victims of Hurricane Harvey when they did not do the same during super storm Sandy, which battered the Northeast in 2012. 

And no one was angrier this week than U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat, who also serves on the tax-writing committee and proposed similar but unsuccessful tax breaks in the aftermath of that storm. 

"He's gone too far," he said of Brady in an interview with the Tribune on Tuesday. 

The U.S. House voted down a measure on Thursday that would expand the tax breaks for Sandy victims and other natural disasters that occurred in the last five years. 

At a U.S. House Rules Committee meeting Tuesday evening chaired by U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, the Dallas Republican repeatedly described the desperate situation in Texas and the Caribbean and urged his colleagues to move on the legislation, calling it "common sense." 

When asked if the delegation was still united despite the split votes on the Harvey bill, U.S. Rep Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, was optimistic 

"I think we are," he said.

Republican and Democratic members of the Texas delegation held a press conference following the bill's passage in what they called a demonstration of their bipartisanship on the issue. 

“Our bill specifically helps hurricane victims keep more of their paycheck, pay for the cost of their expenses in property damage and have more affordable and immediate access to the money they saved for their retirement so they can rebuild their families and their homes and their businesses,” Brady said. “Our legislation will also encourage more Americans to donate generously to those in need.

"Taken together these provisions will provide the support our communities need to recover from this destruction.”

Claire Allbright contributed to this report.

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