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GOP leaders rebuked by 12 panel chairmen

Lauren Schneiderman

A majority of House committee chairmen broke with the Republican leadership on a flood insurance bill that passed overwhelmingly Tuesday, a rare rebuke that came after GOP leaders negotiated a deal with Democrats.

The fix to a 2012 law reforming the National Flood Insurance Program passed on a 306-91 vote, but 12 of 21 Republican committee chiefs opposed the bill.

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Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) brought the bill to the floor over the objections of the head of the Financial Services Committee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who warned the legislation would undo changes that sought to put the debt-ridden insurance program on sounder fiscal footing.

While some of the chairmen cited policy concerns with the bill, others complained that party leaders had sidelined Hensarling and instead negotiated with the top Democrat on his panel, Rep. Maxine Waters (Calif.).

“Chairman Hensarling was a ‘no,’ and that told a lot of us other chairmen there was something here,” said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee. “I don’t want to pick a fight here, but it does work well, when the bill comes through committee, and that the chairman of the committee with jurisdiction was not happy with it told us a lot.”

Other lawmakers said the rift underscored a broader concern within the Republican conference about the leadership’s tendency, despite repeated pledges to the contrary, to skirt the “regular order” process and bring legislation to the floor that has not passed through committee. In the case of the flood insurance bill, Cantor and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) moved the measure over Hensarling’s explicit opposition.

“Obviously, we try to not let that happen,” Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and another “no” vote on the bill, told reporters Wednesday at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “That’s really an issue that

I’ll let Jeb address. But were it a Ways and Means issue, I wouldn’t be happy.”

GOP leaders faced intense election-year pressure over the bill from lawmakers from coastal states like Louisiana, Florida and New Jersey, who were hearing from constituents facing dramatic increases in flood insurance premiums as a result of the 2012 law, authored by Waters and former GOP Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.).

Hensarling, who served in the Republican leadership through 2012, declined to comment. He referred a reporter to his Tuesday speech on the House floor, in which he noted that he and a subcommittee chairman, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas), had put forward four separate proposals to modify the 2012 flood insurance law that were ignored.

“I respect my leadership for bringing a bill that may not be optimum to the floor,” Hensarling said. “But Mr. Speaker, if we don’t protect taxpayers today, how will we ever reform the gargantuan middle-income entitlements that put us on the precipice of a debt crisis?”

Committee chairmen have bucked the GOP leadership before, and at one point last year, several of them drew a scolding from Cantor after they voted against a farm bill that had come through the Agriculture Committee.

But the complaints on the flood bill were that the leadership went around the committee process. One GOP lawmaker said members were frustrated because they are constantly being told by the leadership that the party will recommit to regular order once they get a certain contentious issue behind them, such as the debt limit or, in this case, the politically sensitive flood insurance fix.

“There’s always just one more thing,” the lawmaker said.

A House GOP leadership aide pointed out that while the legislation did not get a vote in the Financial Services Committee, several members of the committee from both parties worked on the bill.

As for the defection of the committee chairmen, the aide said party leaders knew they had enough votes to pass the bill, including from a majority of Republicans.

“Every member, including chairmen, were instructed to vote their conscience and vote their district,” the aide said.

Some of the committee chairmen who opposed the bill said their position had nothing to do with the process.

“This was a temporary fix that would just make the problem more complicated later,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), the chairman of the Agriculture Committee who also serves on the Financial Services panel. “So it was policy, not process for me.”

And Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, said she has always opposed the flood insurance program and noted she was one of a couple dozen lawmakers who opposed the Biggert-Waters bill in 2012.

“Why in the world is the government in the flood insurance business?” she asked. “Really, it’s ridiculous. And the only reason we are is so the federal government can subsidize properties.”

Bernie Becker contributed.

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