Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson urged Congress to approve additional funds for disaster relief as Hurricane Irma threatens Miami, a bipartisan ritual for politicians with constituents facing hardship from a major storm.
But in 2013, Rubio was one of 36 Republican senators who voted against a Hurricane Sandy relief bill for New Jersey and New York, and now his South Florida colleagues hope he has learned a lesson.
“You can be a fiscal conservative until it hits you and your community and then you have a different point of view,” said Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Rubio in 2013 argued that the $60 billion bill for Sandy relief, which passed after months of delays, was filled with unnecessary spending.
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“The Hurricane Sandy supplemental bill goes far beyond emergency relief to impacted victims and communities, which is why I voted no on final passage,” Rubio said in a 2012 statement. “The current spending bill goes far beyond emergency relief and all efforts to strip the bill of unrelated pork are being blocked.”
He was the only member of Congress who represented Miami-Dade County to vote against the bill. Nelson, Republican Reps. Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, former Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia and Democratic Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson all voted in favor of the Sandy bill, which passed after a minority of Republicans joined Democrats.
Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who came to Congress after the Sandy vote, described the decision by some Republicans to vote against Sandy relief as “horrible.”
“I’m sure a lot of them are regretting it today,” Curbelo said of the Sandy vote. “My message is, you could be next. When a significant number of Americans are suffering due to a natural disaster, we need to come together as a country and we’re really worried about spending around here, we should look at our entitlement programs, not refuse to help people who are homeless and lacking food.”
On Wednesday, Rubio and Nelson issued a joint letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, urging Congress to include additional funds for Irma relief in the spending package that lawmakers are preparing to help Texas recover from Harvey.
“As Floridians are preparing for one of the worst storms on record, they need to know that the federal government is both ready and willing to direct the necessary resources needed to help them in the recovery process,” Rubio and Nelson wrote. “As such, we strongly urge you to include additional funding in the Hurricane Harvey aid package to account for the additional costs FEMA will likely incur responding to Hurricane Irma.”
Rubio isn’t the only Republican to vote against the Sandy bill who is now asking for hurricane relief.
After Harvey made landfall in Texas, Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn also made the pitch for federal disaster funds despite voting against the Sandy bill.
“Two-thirds of the bill had nothing to do with Sandy,” Cruz said. “And what I said then and still believe now is it's not right for politicians to exploit a disaster and people who are hurting, for them to pay for their own political wishlist.”
But PolitiFact rated Cruz’s argument that two-thirds of the bill had nothing to do with Sandy as “mostly false.” Billions of dollars did go toward long-term reconstruction and prevention costs in addition to immediate aid, and the bulk of the $60 billion went to places hardest hit by Sandy.
“It is very interesting to have seen the Texas delegation come around on disaster relief when Harvey hit them in Texas and yet they held up Sandy funding for the New York, New Jersey, Northeast area for almost 90 days,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
In a statement, Rubio said he supported “emergency funding” for Sandy and would “support the same for Harvey, Irma or any other major disaster.”
“What I did not support and would not support now is placing non-emergency funding in an emergency funding bill,” Rubio said. “Close to 70 percent of the funding in the Sandy supplemental was for spending on projects over three years after the storm. Many were worthy projects, but they should be funded as part of the yearly spending bill, not as part of an emergency funding measure designed to address the immediate costs of providing assistance after a disaster.”
New Jersey Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone, who represents a stretch of coastal New Jersey directly affected by Sandy, said he hopes Republicans such as Rubio have “learned their lesson.”
“It does annoy me that when the time came for us to get the funding, many of them were opposed to it,” Pallone said, adding that Republican opposition delayed the bill for weeks.
And on Wednesday, Nelson and Rubio argued that Congress doesn’t have weeks to sort out a relief bill if Irma hits Florida.
“As of right now, FEMA is scheduled to run out of money by Friday, Sept. 8, just two days before Hurricane Irma is expected to hit Florida,” Rubio and Nelson said. “Unfortunately, the current disaster relief package Congress is considering for Hurricane Harvey doesn’t account for the additional costs FEMA will likely incur as a result of Hurricane Irma. In fact, according to FEMA, even with the Harvey supplemental aid package, FEMA is likely to run out of funds before the end of September.”
Democrats and Republicans from South Florida say they don’t intend to hold up any relief bill for Harvey or Irma.
“I won’t hold it against any member that made a poor choice when it was another community, but it’s a lesson,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Today, it’s not your community, but tomorrow it might be. We all have to be empathetic and prepared to have each others back when disaster strikes.”
This story was updated with a statement from Rubio sent after publication.