Divided Republicans turn to Rep. Waters

A politically fraught fight over flood insurance has prompted a split between the House Republican leadership and a top committee chairman, forcing senior GOP lawmakers to bargain for votes instead with liberal Rep. Maxine Waters (Calif.), the panel’s top Democrat.

GOP leaders have struggled to gain enough support to pass a House alternative to flood insurance legislation the Senate approved last month, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told members in a closed-door conference meeting he was delaying a floor vote until next week, as he works with Waters, the ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, to finalize the measure.

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In the same meeting, the Republican chairman of that committee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), told lawmakers he could not support the leadership’s approach and would vote against the bill when it makes it to the floor. A leading conservative, Hensarling served through 2012 as chairman of the Republican Conference, the fourth-ranking position in leadership, and his move to stand up in opposition to the leadership on a matter within his committee’s jurisdiction was described as “an awkward moment” by a fellow House Republican in the meeting.

Lawmakers from New York and coastal states like Florida and Louisiana have pushed for a fix to legislation enacted in 2012, after its implementation caused insurance premiums to spike for thousands of residents in their districts, threatening their ability to keep their homes. 

“We’ve got a flood insurance bill that’s having some unintended consequences that need to be resolved, so we expect to have a bill on the floor next week,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Wednesday, citing the issue as an example of legislation that stands a good chance of making it to President Obama’s desk in the election year.

Unlike issues like immigration reform that have been slowed by the looming midterm elections, campaign politics has spurred action on flood insurance. It is a major topic in the high-profile Senate race in Louisiana between incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) and Rep. Bill Cassidy (R), and it also has been championed by Rep. Michael Grimm (N.Y.), a vulnerable Republican with many constituents whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Superstorm Sandy.

The Senate last month passed legislation authored by Landrieu to delay the premium increases for up to four years, but Cantor dismissed it as “a nonstarter” in the House because it guts reforms in the 2012 law and adds to the deficit.

Cantor and a group of Republicans from coastal states have instead sought a middle ground that would cap rate hikes to an average of 15 percent without adding to the deficit. They are working with Waters, who, along with former Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), was the chief author of the 2012 law that sought to address the $24 billion debt of The National Flood Insurance Program. 

Leadership aides downplayed the delay, saying the details that needed to be worked out with Waters were technical in nature. In a statement to The Hill, Waters said the bill remained “a work in progress.”

“We continue to work in good faith with Republican leadership to address a number of technical and substantive issues related to the legislation, with the ultimate goal of correcting the unintended consequences of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act,” she said. “This could not be done overnight.”

Yet the House attempt at a compromise has not won over Hensarling, and it has drawn criticism from an unusual coalition of conservative and environmental groups who say it erodes important fiscal reforms to The National Flood Insurance Program and subsidizes the purchase of homes in dangerous flood zones.

“This is just not good policy,” said Rob Moore, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This is not going to help us bring the flood insurance program back into fiscal solvency.”

Jimi Grande, a senior vice president at the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, said the House proposal would continue to subsidize people who knowingly purchase homes in areas that are increasingly unsafe.

“We have to make sure that the rate people are charged matches the risk they face,” Grande said.

Lawmakers who supported the 2012 law complained the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in drawing updated flood maps and setting new rates based on the measure, misinterpreted Congress’s intent. But the rush to fix the law so soon after its enactment underscores the difficulty Washington has had in delivering on promises to rein in federal spending.

The GOP leadership’s decision to sideline Hensarling has rankled some members who are wary of dealing with Waters, a fiery liberal who became a Republican target when she was under investigation by the House Ethics Committee. The panel cleared her of any violations in 2012.

Conservative groups have rallied around the former Republican Study Committee (RSC) chairman, who has been mentioned as someone who could return to the House leadership after Boehner retires.

“Congressman Jeb Hensarling’s leadership on flood insurance deserves recognition,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said in a statement. “House Republican leadership wants to stick taxpayers with the bill for higher subsidies to beach-front properties, but Congressman Hensarling took a principled stand.”

Chocola criticized the leadership for skirting the committee process and bringing the bill directly to the House floor, despite Boehner’s repeated commitments to follow “regular order.”

Hensarling declined to comment through a spokesman, David Popp, who said he does not discuss “what happens at internal member meetings.” Aides said he stressed his respect for the leadership while voicing his disagreement with its approach.

Unlike most spending issues, the flood insurance debate has not fallen completely along ideological lines. Current RSC Chairman Steve Scalise (La.), represents southern Louisiana and supports the House bill, spokesman Stephen Bell said. Thousands of Scalise’s constituents could face premiums as high as $20,000, Bell said, and Scalise supports a delay “but thinks we should work for real reform.”

Yet, despite Scalise’s backing, Republican leaders found themselves in a familiar position of lacking enough party unity to pass a bill without turning to Democrats for help.

“There was an opportunity to craft a Republican proposal, and it didn’t get done,” a GOP leadership aide said.

The aide said Republicans remained confident they would have a comfortable majority of their conference supporting the bill when it comes to the floor next week.