As Hurricane Irma threatens South Carolina early next week, four of the Palmetto State’s seven Republicans on Capitol Hill voted against $15.25 billion for relief efforts.
The four — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of Seneca, and U.S. Reps. Mark Sanford of Mount Pleasant, Ralph Norman of Rock Hill and Jeff Duncan of Laurens — said they were not opposed to spending money on disaster aid. But they took issue with the way GOP leaders secured the aid money.
In addition to including money for the fallout from Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, the bill included an extension of government funding and a debt-ceiling increase, both expiring in three months.
After the Senate approved the package Thursday, 80-17, Graham said he didn’t want to support another stop-gap spending bill that undermines military readiness. As the House prepared to vote Friday, Sanford, Norman and Duncan said they were opposed to raising the debt ceiling without also addressing deficit reduction.
There is some political risk for the congressmen in voting “no,” given the bill they voted against included Harvey relief and restocked the diminishing coffers of the Federal Emergency Management Act. That money would allow FEMA to respond to likely damage from Irma in South Carolina.
However, Sanford, Norman and Duncan said they weren’t worried about the political fallout of voting against the bill, which passed the House, 316-90.
"The president has worked out this deal with (Democrats) to throw in a bunch of things into one bill,” said Sanford. “It doesn't work for me or, I believe, the district that I represent."
Besides, the lawmakers all said, they had voted earlier in the week for a Harvey aid bill that did not include the debt and budget links. They said they would be happy to so again – even without offsetting spending cuts, a concession by fiscal conservatives.
“If the same were true in South Carolina, and a bill came up with not just money for FEMA but for every other project? No, I couldn’t support that, so I would be consistent,” said Norman.
Before the House vote Friday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney – until earlier this year the congressman from S.C.’s 5th District, a seat now held by Norman – delivered a final pitch for support to the House Republican Conference.
Many conservatives, including Duncan, were bothered by the administration’s lobbying in support of the measure, negotiated between President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders.
“Mnuchin knew we reached the debt ceiling in May, and the Treasury ought to show us a plan,” Duncan told reporters. “You can’t keep borrowing money. We’re going to be $22 trillion in debt, and I’ll tell you, the folks in South Carolina are concerned we’re not doing enough to address our deficit spending and our debt.”
However, the other members of the state’s congressional delegation said they felt an obligation to support the legislation.
“Raising the debt ceiling is far from ideal,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-N. Charleston, adding, “We need to get serious about curbing our spending addiction.”
But, Scott added, denying money for hurricane victims was not an option. “To say the damage done by Hurricane Harvey was detrimental would be an understatement.”
U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, agreed. “Despite my disappointment (with the bill), I refuse to punish my fellow citizens who are in desperate need of help.”
U.S. Reps. Tom Rice of Myrtle Beach and Joe Wilson of Lexington also voted for the package, as did the delegation’s lone Democrat, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia.
If there are political consequences for the votes, they won’t be felt right away. Still, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was seizing the moment Friday, sending out statements slamming Sanford and Norman, two of its 2018 election targets.
“Vote(s) against relief for American families still reeling from Hurricane Harvey would be reckless and cruel on its own, but the fact that it was also a vote for a government shutdown and defaulting on America’s debt gives new meaning to the word irresponsible,” said committee spokesman Cole Leiter. “If you want to understand why Americans are disgusted by Republicans in Congress, look no further.”