The House on Tuesday rejected a Republican amendment that would have forced the government to pay for a $17 billion Hurricane Sandy relief bill with a 1.63 percent cut to discretionary programs.
The House voted down the amendment from Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) in a 162-258 vote that split Republicans 157-71. Those 71 "no" votes from Republicans were enough to kill the amendment, as all but five Democrats also voted against it.
Mulvaney pleaded with his House colleagues to support his language, which he said would not slow down Sandy relief to people in the northeast, and instead would ensure that the U.S. does not go further into debt to pay for that relief.
"This amendment is not about delay. This amendment is not about offering a poison pill to the underlying bill," he said.
Mulvaney stressed that while past disaster relief bills have been passed without offsetting their cost, the size of the U.S. debt is now so large that Congress no longer has the luxury of passing bills without offsets.
"It's important to me that this money goes to the folks who need it very badly," he said. "It's so important to me, that I think we should pay for it.
"The time has come and gone in this nation where we can walk in here one day and spend nine or 17 or 60 billion dollars and not think about who's paying for it," Mulvaney added.
The South Carolina lawmaker was opposed by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who said emergency disaster aid should not be offset with what he called cuts that would hurt many discretionary government programs.
"We must provide this emergency funding, as we are allowed by law, without the devastating slash and burn cuts elsewhere that this amendment would cost," Rogers said. He added that Mulvaney's proposal would cut all programs indiscriminately, "cutting the good and the bad," without giving Congress more choice in deciding what to cut.
Mulvaney argued that he had an additional amendment that would have cut direct farm payments and transit subsidies for federal workers, but the Rules Committee did not allow a vote on those proposals. He challenged Rogers and other opponents to specify which programs they would be open to cutting.
"Just tell me what you are willing to do without," said Mulvaney. "Are we willing and able to do without anything so that these people can get this money this year?"
Mulvaney's amendment was one of a handful of chances that deficit hawks in the House had to mitigate the size of the Sandy bill. His language only applied to the portion of the bill proposed by Rogers.
Later Tuesday, the House will debate and vote on an amendment that would add another $33.7 billion to the Sandy relief bill. Several other Republican amendments will also be considered that would reduce the size of the bill, but only by less than $200 million.
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) proposed several amendments to the bill that would have cut $22 billion from the total package, but none of them was made in order by the Rules Committee.
"It seems we've lost the battle over all of the non-emergency, non-Sandy spending in this measure," McClintock said as he spoke in favor of Mulvaney's amendment. "The question before us now is whether we're going to spend $17 billion in this bill … without even pretending that we can pay for it."
Immediately after the vote on Mulvaney's language, the House voted 327-91 in favor of Rogers's bill as a substitute. With that vote, the $17 billion became the base bill that will be subject to possible amendments later Tuesday evening. A majority of House Republicans voted in favor of Rogers's bill, 135-91.
"I'm not disappointed at all," Mulvaney said afterward, noting that more than 162 members supported his amendment.
"It shows we can have a reasonable debate about this," he said. He added that when Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) first raised the idea of offsetting disaster-relief funding years ago he was "tarred" for it.
"We need to budget better for disasters in the regular spending process," Mulvaney said. He said that if his amendment passed, some 70 or so Republican votes would have switched to support the underlying bill.
"I am in favor of helping these people. I hope I made that clear," he said.
Erik Wasson contributed.
This story was last updated at 12:12 p.m., January 15, to correct that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) voted for the Hensarling amendment.