It was a scene all too familiar to New Jersey political cognoscenti and YouTube fans — a furious Gov. Chris Christie at the podium excoriating his opponent of the moment: a high-paid teachers union lobbyist, obstructionist Democrats, an argumentative Navy Seal.
But this time the target was the highest-ranking member of his own Republican Party, and Christie’s vitriolic personal attack was not only fully premeditated but also televised live on national news networks.
Furious over House Speaker John Boehner’s sudden decision to kill a promised vote on a massive relief package to rebuild New Jersey, New York, and other states ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, Christie yesterday used his bully pulpit to attack the Ohio Republican for “duplicity” and “callous indifference to the suffering of the people of my state.”
One hour later, a chastened and politically weakened Boehner swallowed his opposition in the face of attacks by Christie and a slew of New Jersey and New York leaders from both political parties. Less than 16 hours after he had cancelled votes on the Hurricane Sandy aid package and refused to take Christie’s repeated phone calls, Boehner agreed to schedule a vote tomorrow on $9.7 billion in funding.
The money will enable a federal flood relief program that was scheduled to run out of money in two days to continue processing claims.
Boehner also agreed to post the remaining $50.3 billion in requested Sandy relief assistance for votes when the 113th Congress is seated on January 15.
Ironically, while approval of only the first $27 billion in emergency assistance had seemed assured a few days ago, Boehner’s retreat makes it almost certain that the House will approve the full $60 billion in requested Hurricane Sandy aid, according to two New Jersey Republican congressmen who met with Boehner yesterday.
Falling off the Fiscal Cliff
The $60 billion Hurricane Sandy bill approved by the U.S. Senate a week ago on a bipartisan basis became entangled in the increasingly bitter politics of the fiscal cliff negotiations. With most House Republicans reluctant to vote for increased spending, Boehner and House GOP leaders decided last weekend to split the $60 billion Sandy relief package approved by the Senate into two bills. One was $27 billion emergency assistance measure, which had the support of the conservative GOP caucus. The other $33 billion was meant to rebuild transportation, sewerage, boardwalks, and other infrastructure, which most conservative House Republicans opposed.
Many House Republicans wanted to vote only on the first $27 billion in aid now and talked of considering the additional $33 billion in March. That would have ensnarled the critical infrastructure measure in what promises to be yet another ugly political battle on Capitol Hill in late February over raising the federal debt ceiling and cutting entitlement programs.
But the whirlwind of political protest that followed Boehner’s decision at 11:20 p.m. Tuesday night to cancel the Sandy votes without explanation forced the House speaker to agree to post the full $60 billion in aid for votes this month. That clears the way for the full package to pass, with House Democrats expected to provide most of the votes for the $33 billion infrastructure legislation, which means only relatively few Republican votes will be needed.
It is New Jersey’s share of that $33 billion in infrastructure spending that would create the most jobs and provide the biggest economic boost for an economy that ranked 47th in Gross Domestic Product growth in both 2010 and 2011. What’s more, the Garden State will be hard-pressed to match last year’s job creation numbers in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Rutgers University economist Joseph J. Seneca noted in an interview yesterday.
Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), whose Second Congressional District includes Atlantic and Cape May Counties, and Chris Smith (R-NJ), whose Fourth District includes devastated Monmouth and Ocean County shore towns, emerged from a meeting with Boehner yesterday afternoon convinced that both bills would now pass this month, providing the two states with federal aid to cover about 75 percent of the estimated $80 billion-plus cost of reconstruction.
Getting a quick commitment for the $33 billion in infrastructure money is particularly critical for rebuilding boardwalks and other infrastructure in time for Memorial Day and the summer tourism season.
“No recovery is ever accomplished in a single year, but it is the predictability and certainty of funds to rebuild and restore that ensures that the work proceeds immediately, comprehensively, efficaciously, and without interruption,” Smith noted in a speech yesterday morning.
Why Boehner Backed Down
Democratic leaders ranging from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) had sharply criticized Boehner’s Tuesday night cancellation of the planned Sandy votes.
“Never before has USA walked away from its obligation to help Americans after a natural disaster but today #HouseGOP told NJ, NY to drop dead,” Menendez tweeted, recalling the famous New York City tabloid headline, “Ford to NYC: Drop Dead,” that ran after Republican President Gerald Ford refused federal aid to a city facing bankruptcy in 1975.
But it was clearly the impassioned attacks by fellow Republicans that forced Boehner to back down.
Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who represents hard-hit Long Island, told CNN that Boehner and the House Republican majority “put a knife in the back of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans, it was an absolute disgrace,” and said any New Yorkers or New Jerseyans who contribute “one penny to congressional Republicans is out of their minds.”
Undoubtedly, however, it was the bitter attack by an irate Christie, who ranks at or near the top of national polls of potential contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, that had the biggest impact.
Christie, who is running for reelection as governor in November, reprised the theme of bipartisan cooperation that sent his popularity ratings soaring in the middle of the Hurricane Sandy disaster when he singled out Democrats Cuomo, Menendez, and Pallone, along with New Jersey and New York Republican congressional leaders, for their hard work on the Sandy relief package.
But while Christie angered many Republicans across the country for seemingly shunting aside GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney to repeatedly praise President Obama for his Hurricane Sandy leadership just before the November election, the popular GOP governor went one step further yesterday by openly attacking the nation’s ranking Republican elected official.
“There is only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims, the House majority and their speaker John Boehner,” Christie said at a Statehouse press conference. “This was the speaker’s decision, his alone.”
Christie accused Boehner of engaging in “political intrigue” by treating New Jerseyans and New Yorkers as “pawns” on a political chessboard. “New Jerseyans and New Yorkers are tired of being treated like second-class citizens,” he said. “Shame on you. Shame on Congress.”
Christie made it clear he was not blaming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), who had initially called for spending cuts in other programs to offset any Hurricane Sandy aid, but later changed his mind and agreed to push the bill as standalone legislation.
“Eric was working as hard as he could to get this done for us throughout the weekend and early this week,” Christie asserted. In fact, it was Cantor who called Christie Tuesday night to tell him that Boehner had decided not to post the Sandy legislation for a vote.
A Battle for Leadership
Christie’s statements yesterday thrust him in the middle of an on-again, off-again internal battle for political and ideological leadership of the Republican caucus. Ironically, Christie, who is usually identified with the more moderate Northeastern wing of the Republican Party, yesterday found himself aligned with the more conservative Cantor, a darling of Tea Party Republicans, against the more moderate Boehner.
Boehner surprised many by voting for the bipartisan fiscal cliff compromise hammered out by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), while Cantor and most conservative Republicans in the House voted against the bill. Five out of six New Jersey Republicans voted for the measure, with only conservative Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ) voting against it.
Some analysts thought that Boehner pulled the Hurricane Sandy legislation because he didn’t want to ask House Republicans to vote for $60 billion in new spending on a night in which he and many others had already tacitly voted to allow $600 billion in payroll, income, and estate tax increases to go forward. The Sandy bills were not pulled from the board list because of time constraints; Boehner found time for the House to post ceremonial bills that were duly passed.
The Hurricane Sandy legislation was being attacked by the Heritage Foundation and conservative advocacy groups because it represented increased government spending at a time when Republican lawmakers had backed off demands for major entitlement and other spending cuts as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations.
Christie bridled at attacks on the $60 billion Sandy aid bill as unnecessary spending. The governor contended that federal funding for disaster relief “used to be something that was not political.”
Christie argued that the “toxic politics” in Washington had unconscionably delayed the approval of the Sandy legislation. Usually, the approval of disaster relief is swift, Christie said. “Thirty-one days for Andrew victims, 17 days for victims of Gustav and Ike, 10 days for victims of Katrina. For the victims of Sandy in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, it has been 66 days and the wait continues.”