WASHINGTON — It was a tension-filled 24-hour scramble for Texas' congressional delegation before the latest disaster relief spending vote, as Gov. Greg Abbott entered the fray in an effort to secure more funds to help the state rebuild after Hurricane Harvey.
The bill, which the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed Thursday afternoon in a 353-69 vote, is expected to be taken up by the U.S. Senate next week when that chamber returns from recess.
All House Democrats — Texans included — voted for the bill. Six Texas Republicans – U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of Ennis, Louie Gohmert of Tyler, Jeb Hensarling of Dallas, Kenny Marchant of Coppell, John Ratcliffe of Heath and Roger Williams of Austin – voted against the spending measure.
But ahead of Thursday's vote, there was more than a day of frustration and second-guessing. Some in Texas' 36-member House delegation questioned whether their state's needs were being neglected as Puerto Rico, ravaged by Hurricane Maria, and California, which is combating devastating wildfires, faced more dire situations. An all-hands-on-deck late-night meeting with key members of the delegation and House leadership focused on a letter the delegation sent to leadership last week requesting $18.7 billion in aid.
"We were anxious to see those items included," said U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston. "When they were not, we were concerned, but we understood this bill was essential to keep the flow of federal funding intact and uninterrupted."
Thursday's bill included $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s main relief fund and the cancellation of $16 billion in debt owed by the troubled National Flood Insurance Program, from which thousands of Texans are expecting payouts after Harvey.
"If this did not pass, the flood insurance program would run out of money and would not be able to pay off insurance claims, and that would not be acceptable," Culberson said.
While the vote was far from a nail biter, there was discussion as late as Thursday morning that the bulk of the Texas House delegation could vote against the bill to protest a lack of funding for the Texas rebuilding effort.
The scramble began Wednesday afternoon, when Abbott publicly urged the Texas delegation to oppose a spending plan that probably would direct most of its money to the relief efforts for Puerto Rico. After a late-night meeting and call with the U.S. speaker of the House, Abbott backed off on his opposition — but the flare-up left many in the delegation concerned about future aid.
With most of the $36.5 billion directed to FEMA's main relief fund, Abbott and some in the delegation assumed most of the bill's funding would go to Puerto Rico, much of which remains without power.
Abbott initially argued that the Texans should have fought for the standalone $18.7 billion request that he and nearly all of the state's members of Congress had officially requested last week.
"I am disappointed that most members of the Texas congressional delegation have agreed to go ahead and vote for this bill, from what I know at this time, when Texas needs this money," Abbott told the Houston Chronicle in a Wednesday interview. "It appears the Texas delegation will let themselves be rolled by the House of Representatives."
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke with Abbott about his concerns Wednesday night, a conversation first reported by The Dallas Morning News.
Ryan and two other members of House leadership – U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise – also met with Houston-area Republican members and several Texas Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee.
Ryan and other House leaders assured the Texans, including Abbott, that more federal money is on the way.
“Governor Abbott was assured by House leadership that as soon as November, Texas will get the disaster assistance funding we're requesting for Army Corps of Engineer projects, Community Development Block Grants, and funding for dredging Texas ports, expanding bayous and critical flood mitigation projects, among other priorities," Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said in a statement.
"The Governor will hold House leadership to that promise on behalf of Texans whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Harvey. In the meantime, the Governor and the Texas delegation will continue working together as a team to help Texans recover and rebuild.”
There were essentially two camps in Congress over Abbott's last-minute lobbying, according to interviews with about a dozen sources inside and beyond the Texas delegation.
One group agreed with the governor that Texas was losing out on major funds as dire straits in Puerto Rico took precedence over efforts to rebuild in areas ravaged by Harvey.
While few in the delegation begrudged funding for Puerto Rico, there is a growing concern that the recent onslaught of natural disasters in other parts of the country will cause memories of the calamity in Houston to fade in the minds of other members of Congress and their constituents.
In this camp, Abbott's sentiment was privately cheered as giving voice to a frustration that is bipartisan and stretches beyond Texas. Members of the Florida delegation told the Tribune that they, too, were concerned about their state's capacity to rebuild, particularly in the citrus industry, given the federal aid offered thus far.
In the other camp, there was obvious ire with Abbott's comments to the Chronicle, particularly his urging the delegation needed to get "a stiff spine," which was interpreted by some as accusing Texans in Congress of being spineless.
Culberson pushed back against that notion.
"We still don't have a complete account of the scale of the damage," said the Houston congressman, who added that providing a comprehensive account of the cost at this point was "not possible."
Some of the tensions over the version of the bill that reached the House floor Thursday emerged from an impression that the chamber's GOP leadership took marching orders from the White House and cut House appropriators out of the process.
"Leadership forced on the committee a funding bill that lacked enthusiastic support from seven committee members from states affected," a senior Appropriations Committee member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk more freely, told the Tribune.
Despite the unease within the delegation Thursday, there remains hope that Texas will ultimately secure tens of billions of more dollars in federal funding in the coming months. Since the storm, some estimates for what's needed for a full recovery have reached as much as $150 billion.
Patrick Svitek and Claire Allbright contributed to this report.
Read related Tribune coverage:
Under a new mental health task force, three state agencies will help connect public schools and universities with counselors, funding and training as students and staff work to overcome the traumatic effects of Hurricane Harvey. [Full story]
Congress is beginning to consider how to overhaul the flood insurance plan that many Texans are relying on to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey. [Full story]
Houston officials let developers build homes inside reservoirs. But no one warned buyers. [Full story]