Why Most House Republicans Voted for a Deal They Loathed

Debt haters and defense hawks made up most no votes

Texas Rep. Pete Olson, seen here at a Wednesday press conference, was among the 21 of 25 Texas Republicans to vote for final passage of the Hurricane Harvey relief measure. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Texas Rep. Pete Olson, seen here at a Wednesday press conference, was among the 21 of 25 Texas Republicans to vote for final passage of the Hurricane Harvey relief measure. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 11, 2017 at 5:04am

Most House Republicans griped about the fiscal package they were forced to vote on Friday, but ultimately, a relatively small portion of the conference was willing to vote against it.

A little more than one-third of House Republicans voted against a package that would extend government funding and the debt ceiling for three months, while providing $15 billion in disaster relief aid, primarily to Texas and Louisiana to help with the Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts.

The 90 Republicans who voted against the measure came from various cross sections of the conference.

A large portion of the “no” votes came from conservatives upset about voting to suspend the debt ceiling without accompanying measures to rein in government spending.

They included roughly two-thirds of the 36 members in the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus and nearly half of the 153 members of the conservative Republican Study Committee.

“It’s fair to say that the Democrats had a win on this because there are no structural reforms to [the deficit] that was included with the debt ceiling vote,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said. “Indeed, it’s the first time I can recall without something conservative being attached to it.”

Another chunk of the “no” votes came from members who believe a continuing resolution that simply extends current funding levels is no way to govern, especially given fluctuating military needs.

House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry said a CR creates more risks for the troops.

“It’s clear, readiness is degrading, we are losing our technological advantage, troops are under stress,” the Texas Republican said. “A CR not only does not solve those problems, it continues to make them worse because you have to spend the same money on the same stuff in the same quantities. You can’t even buy more bombs.”

Many Republicans, beyond the the 90 who voted against the measure, have concerns about out-of-control spending and the limitations a CR imposes on the military. So why did they vote for the package?

Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, an appropriator, believes many GOP lawmakers learned their lesson from having voted against disaster funding for Hurricane Sandy in 2013.

“I made this point in conference today: ‘Look this will come back to haunt you. There will be a time when a disaster takes place in your area,” Cole said.

President Donald Trump, who is still popular among the Republican base, asking members to vote for it didn’t hurt either, Cole added.

Political reasons

Politics — whether it be support for Trump or fear of being attacked for voting against hurricane relief — was likely a factor in why 133 Republicans voted for the measure.

Virginia Rep. Dave Brat, a Freedom Caucus member, said he was surprised so many Republicans voted “yes” but he understood they were put in a bad position with Harvey aid getting linked to the debt ceiling.

“Somewhat, it’s just politics and just fear in the district,” he said. “It’s politics over policy.” Brat voted against the measure.

Despite those considerations, 14 Republicans who are Democratic targets in 2018 voted against the measure, including Don Bacon of Nebraska, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, Peter Roskam of Illinois, Kevin Yoder of Kansas, Lee Zeldin of New York and Duncan Hunter of California. 

“I’m deeply frustrated with today’s vote and how it came about,” Yoder said in a statement Friday. He said the package took advantage of the need for emergency hurricane relief to address other priorities.

“I strongly believe there are bipartisan compromises that work for the American people, but today’s short-term fix that kicks the can down the road wasn’t one of them,” he added.

The members’ explanations, however, won’t stop Democrats from using the vote to attack them in campaigns.

“Vulnerable House Republicans’ vote 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,” Tyler Law, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “If you want to understand why Americans are disgusted by Republicans in Congress, look no further than this vote.”

Texas ‘no’ votes

Perhaps the most difficult “no” votes came from Republican members of the Texas delegation. Reps. Joe L. Barton, Jeb Hensarling, Sam Johnson and Thornberry all voted against the package that provided disaster funds to their state.

“I’m for disaster relief,” Thornberry said. “I’m troubled by only a three-month debt extension because that’s not what the financial markets need. But what really matters to me is doing right by the people who are risking their lives for us, and CRs do not do right by them.”

Barton said he voted for the relief package as a standalone measure earlier in the week but he felt it was the right decision to vote against it when coupled with a clean debt ceiling increase that doesn’t do anything to address spending.

“The debt ceiling is supposed to be at least a stop sign that gives us pause and gives us a chance to change the way we do our spending,” he said. “And it’s not even a yield sign. In fact, it’s an increase speed sign right now. And that’s wrong.”

The other 21 of the 25 Republican members of the Texas delegation voted “yes,” several of whom would traditionally have been opposed to a clean debt ceiling extension.

Rep. Roger Williams is one of those members. Since joining Congress in 2013, he had never voted for a debt ceiling deal until Friday. He felt such packages never did enough to address what he sees as reckless government spending.

The Austin-area lawmaker cited his support Friday as a commitment to being with the communities affected by Hurricane Harvey “every step of the way” but said he was disappointed the relief package was “exploited” with the attachment of the CR and debt limit suspension.

“Opportunistic lawmakers, from both sides of the aisle, must check their self-serving agendas at the door, and place the well-being of Americans up front,” he said in a statement. “Career politicians have once again misused their power in Washington, further threatening to bankrupt America, while failing to decrease the federal debt, and create a balanced budget.”

Hard-line conservative Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, who joined the Freedom Caucus this year, also voted “yes,” even though he rarely backs leadership on fiscal issues.

Unconvincing arguments

Whatever their reasons for voting “yes” or “no,” most Republicans did not appear swayed by a Friday morning pitch from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney on why they should vote for the package.

Mnuchin closed his remarks with words that didn’t go over well in the conference, according to Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker, who voted against the measure.

“His words, and I quote, was, ‘Vote for the debt ceiling for me.’ And you could hear the murmurs in the room,” the North Carolina Republican said, describing “hissing” and “groans.”

Mulvaney didn’t say anything particularly offensive, members said, but they noted that the package the Freedom Caucus founding member was advocating was something he would have been fighting against were he were still in the House.

The reversal was so striking it prompted California Rep. Darrell Issa to ask if there were openings at the OMB for some of Mulvaney’s former colleagues.

“As best I recall it, I simply said, ‘Mick, I wonder if you have 42 slots over there for assistants,’” said Issa, who voted for the measure. “And he got it. You can look on the board for Hurricane Harvey and there were two groups voting no: One group would be Freedom Caucus. The other group would be the defense hawks who weren’t happy with getting a three-month CRs.”

Members took the comment largely in jest.

Darrell Issa’s line was the best line that I’ve heard in five years,” Meadows said. “It was the only time I’ve seen Director Mulvaney quiet and speechless in at least five years.”

Issa said it was meant to be funny but also carry a message.

“It was a joke but it wasn’t a joke without meaning. Mick’s job when he went over to the administration was not to be an ordinary Office of Management and Budget [director],” he said. “It was to reach out to call conservatives and create sort of a middle ground where they should be able to vote for it.”

Asked if Mulvaney has been able to find that middle ground, Issa said, “He has work to do.”

Simone Pathé contributed to this report.