Florida politics play into disaster relief debate

Florida politics play into disaster relief debate
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Hurricane Michael, and the federal and state response to the disaster, could determine the outcome of Florida’s hotly contested Senate race as Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonDemocrats target Florida Hispanics in 2020 Poll: Six Democrats lead Trump in Florida match-ups How Jim Bridenstine recruited an old enemy to advise NASA MORE (Fla.), one of the chamber’s most vulnerable Democrats, and Gov. Rick Scott (R) battle to take political credit for the relief effort.

The storm gives Nelson and Scott an opportunity to play leadership roles on television as stricken residents of Florida’s panhandle look for the government’s help in putting their lives back together.

But failure to deliver — or the appearance of falling short — could hurt either or both candidates as the campaign enters its final stretch.

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“It’s a big deal,” said Alex Patton, a Florida-based GOP consultant. “It’s a highly emotional time. Most Floridians relate to it."

“It’s a ton of free airtime during a very emotional time. You can look like, talk like and be a leader,” he added. “People remember this stuff.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, who is the mayor of Tallahassee, has been interviewed the most on television in recent days, according to consultants in the state, which is likely to help his campaign for governor.

Scott, as sitting governor, also has had a lot of free airtime while Nelson, who was in Washington voting until Wednesday, has received less. But Democrats say being on television the most isn’t necessarily helpful if voters are disappointed with the relief efforts.

“There’s certainly an advantage to put on that government-issued polo shirt and windbreaker and stand behind the podium and tell people you care about the safety of their families but there are two sides to it,” said Ben Pollara, a Florida-based Democratic consultant and fundraiser.

Pollara noted that Scott came under criticism after Hurricane Irma when he did not quickly respond to messages asking for help left on his cellphone by employees at a nursing home where 14 senior citizens eventually died because of bad conditions.

“It’s probably been a net positive for Rick Scott and Andrew Gillum this week as the rest of the political world shuts down and they’re on TV every day looking like strong leaders but I think it’s premature to say that this will be defining moment in the campaign not knowing yet how the storm will ultimately be defined politically,” Pollara said.  

Democrats say Nelson, who leads Scott by a couple of points in recent polls, could score big political points by securing a promise soon from Republicans for significant aid to Florida’s battered panhandle.

“He desperately needs this,” a Democratic aide said of Nelson. “He needs something good to come out of this.”

Senate Democrats increasingly see Nelson as their most vulnerable incumbent after Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampTrump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand McConnell's Democratic challenger McGrath backtracks on Kavanaugh comments McConnell's Democratic challenger says she likely would have voted for Kavanaugh MORE (D-N.D.), who has fallen behind her challenger by an average of 9 points in recent polls.

Nelson missed votes Thursday as he traveled to Florida to help his constituents deal with the storm’s aftermath.

“This is the largest one, the most difficult one certainly in my lifetime to hit he panhandle of Florida,” Nelson told anchor Judy Woodruff from Panama City Beach. “Now is the time for the federal government to come to everybody’s assistance."

“They’re going to need a lot of help around here for a long, long time,” he added.

Congress traditionally tries to set partisan politics aside when responding to a national disaster on the scale of Hurricane Michael, which laid a path of destruction through Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, which are still recovering from the devastating impact of Hurricane Florence.

The Senate recessed on Thursday for the rest of October and Congress isn’t expected to be back in session before the Nov. 6 election, which means a federal disaster relief package will wait until the December lame-duck session or next year.

Democrats say it would be a big boost for Nelson to secure a promise for an emergency funding from GOP leaders before Election Day, but as of now it doesn’t look like he’s going to get it.

Republican leaders this week said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has enough money to pay for the initial relief efforts. They say it will take time to assess the destruction, likely putting off any congressional action for a couple of months.  

“The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) currently has sufficient funds for immediate disaster response thanks to prior action from Congress,” Rep. Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenThe 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority Top House GOP appropriations staffer moves to lobbying shop Individuals with significant disabilities need hope and action MORE (R-N.J.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

Frelinghuysen said his committee is closely monitoring FEMA’s funding levels.

“Should the need arise, my committee is prepared to act quickly,” he said, adding “our thoughts are with those affected by this and other hurricanes.”

A GOP aide said FEMA currently has $25 billion available in its accounts.

The damage caused by Michael could far exceed that amount, however.

Hurricane Harvey, which slammed into Texas and Louisiana in 2017 caused $125 billion in damage, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Hurricane Maria, which ravaged Puerto Rico last year, wreaked $90 billion worth of damage.

Senate GOP leaders say they’ll wait on states hit by Hurricane Michael to assess the damage before moving forward.

“They need to do an assessment first and then I’m sure we’ll address that as soon as they’re ready,” said Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynGOP struggles to find backup plan for avoiding debt default Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand On The Money: Mnuchin warns US could hit debt limit in early September | Acosta out as Labor chief | Trump pitches trade deal in Wisconsin | FTC reportedly settles with Facebook for B fine MORE (R-Texas), adding he does not know the timing of congressional action.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP struggles to find backup plan for avoiding debt default GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries High anxiety hits Senate over raising debt ceiling MORE (R-S.D.) said Florida and other states will inform Congress if more money is needed and that money currently in the FEMA accounts should suffice for now.

“It’s all going to be determined what the needs are and the states are probably going to give us some direction on that,” he said. “But FEMA, I assume, is resourced at least initially well enough to be able to respond.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyGOP struggles to find backup plan for avoiding debt default GOP balks at White House push for standalone vote on debt ceiling Lawmakers concede they might have to pass a dreaded 'CR' MORE (R-Ala.) said work on a disaster relief package won’t begin immediately.

“We’ll do what we have to do but I think they’re going to have to assess some damage,” he said, noting that FEMA “always has some money.”

He said an assistance package “would probably have to be” after the election, noting that the Senate was likely to recess Thursday until after the election.

Hours later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellWhat Democrats should say about guns This week: House Dems voting to hold Barr, Ross in contempt Juan Williams: GOP in a panic over Mueller MORE (R-Ky.) and Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerNYT: Don't make Acosta a political martyr Charities say they never received donations touted by Jeffrey Epstein: report Schumer to donate Epstein campaign contributions to groups fighting sexual violence MORE (N.Y.) struck a deal to vote on 15 judicial nominees and leave town until the week after Election Day.

“We’ll do what we have to do,” Shelby added. “We always respond to earthquakes and disasters of any kind, droughts. I don’t think you can just rush out there and just say we got an open-ended spigot."

“We need some guidelines. We need some real evidence of what they need,” he said.

Shelby said he would first expect a request for disaster relief from the White House before Congress begins working on a supplemental spending package.

A spokeswoman for Shelby said “the chairman will work closely with leadership and the southeastern state delegations regarding the best path forward to ensure we meet the needs of those affected.” 

North and South Carolina received an initial infusion of $1.68 billion in the Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill, which the Senate passed earlier this month, to pay for the first round of repairs related to Hurricane Florence, a GOP aide noted.