House leaders—awash in indecision over how to address dramatic hikes to federal flood-insurance premiums during a midterm election year—abruptly postponed a Thursday vote on a bill because of a lack of support.
Some rank-and-file Republicans had expressed confidence as late as Tuesday night that the bill emerging in talks with Democrats would be acted on this week—only to be told by Majority Leader Eric Cantor during a closed-door session Wednesday morning that the vote is being put off.
The development vividly underscores how federal flood insurance—and the need to fix it—blurs the lines between tea-party and conservative fiscal politics and the needs and demands of constituents.
Even some members of the 40 or so usual "hell no" caucus—including many who refused to go along with paying for Superstorm Sandy damage elsewhere in the country—are pleading with Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders to take action to address the rising premiums because of pressure from their districts. Even if that means undoing some recently enacted fiscal reforms to bring the program out of $24 billion in red ink.
What to do was a focus of a meeting being held early Wednesday afternoon by the conservative Republican Study Committee, a group of 175 House members.
Adding to the pressure, though, is that there have been warnings by outside conservative groups Heritage Action and Club for Growth that they oppose the bill that was emerging this week in talks with House Democrats—and that they would include the vote on their legislative scorecards.
And some key House chairmen are also said to have more-privately pressed objections to that bill, arguing that recently enacted fiscal reforms would be gutted.
The Club for Growth, in a news release later Wednesday, even singled out Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling for praise in opposing the bill, which it said would unwind and partly repeal the much-needed reforms enacted in 2012.
"House Republican leadership wants to stick taxpayers with the bill for higher subsidies to beachfront properties, but Congressman Hensarling took a principled stand," said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola.
"As the House Financial Services Committee chairman, Congressman Hensarling has long advocated for reforming the flood insurance program, so it's no surprise that GOP leaders are refusing to run the bill through his committee, and instead, are negotiating directly with the Democrats," the statement added. "Republicans in the House could learn a lot by following Congressman Hensarling's lead when it comes to protecting taxpayers and increasing economic freedom."
There was no immediate comment from Boehner or Cantor's office.
Meanwhile, Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who is running for a Senate seat and has positioned himself as a leader in the effort, downplayed the delay. He said he remains confident the bill will soon move forward and that "this is an opportunity to put good policy before politics."
"We are diligently working on improvements to the bill that the Senate alternative legislation failed to address. We have carefully built a coalition and drafted a solid proposal that has garnered widespread support. Now, small changes are being made to ensure passage of the bill and to ensure FEMA implements it correctly," Cassidy said.
At issue are provisions of a 2012 bill cosponsored by Rep. Maxine Waters—the ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee—and former Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill. The measure, passed against the backdrop of a long-term budgetary crisis, adjusted the rate maps of the National Flood Insurance Program and made other changes designed to fix the program that is tens of billions of dollars in debt (now $24 billion).
But what's ensued are huge spikes in some flood-insurance premiums in coastal states like Louisiana, Florida, and Connecticut, and what some local governments say has been a paralysis in their real-estate markets.
The Senate has already passed a bill that would outright delay the Biggert-Waters Act's adjustments to rate maps for four years.
But many House conservatives say that goes too far.
At the same time, House Republicans have found difficulty finding the right blend of tweaks to the 2012 law to deal with the fast-rising premiums, while also maintaining the force and spirit of its reforms to the ailing flood insurance program have been difficult.
The complaints about the bill that was scheduled to be voted on Thursday included that it would undermine the current law's goal of ending taxpayer subsidies for the roughly one-fifth of the national policyholders who receive them and would extend into perpetuity subsidies for roughly 700,000 older primary homes, even if they are resold by the current owner.
The measure also would roll back rate increases for properties that have been resold since Biggerts-Waters law was passed in mid-2012.
"This bill represents a fundamental betrayal of the free-market principles and fiscal responsibility the House leadership claims to embrace," said R.J. Lehmann, a senior fellow at R Street Institute, which characterizes itself as a "free market" or "libertarian" think tank.
This article appears in the February 27, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.