WASHINGTON — It’s a tough time for a governor to come to Washington, hat in hand, to ask for billions of dollars for a hard-hit state, especially with Congress in the midst of election-season dysfunction and dominated by tightfisted tea party Republicans.
But Gov. John Bel Edwards is back for the second straight week, pleading for almost $3 billion to help Louisiana rebuild from last month’s devastating floods, undeterred by warnings that he should keep expectations low. This is, after all, not the same Congress that voted for $60 billion in the span of a week after Hurricane Katrina slammed Louisiana in 2005.
“What I was told to expect was that there would be a tremendous difference in the way I’m perceived than what would have happened after Katrina because even disaster recovery funding seems to be caught up in partisan gridlock, whereas that was never the case before,” Edwards said in an interview. “But that has not been my experience thus far.”
Congress was generous in approving $95 billion to help Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas rebuild after Katrina. Funding to help the Northeast after Superstorm Sandy four years ago was a much more difficult lift, with the bulk of President Barack Obama’s aid request opposed by House Republicans. More recently, GOP conservatives have been slow to embrace the need for $1 billion or so to battle the mosquito-borne Zika virus.
Edwards, a first-year Democrat, has teamed up with the Pelican State’s GOP-dominated delegation behind a drive to add Louisiana flood aid to a short-term, government-wide spending bill that Congress needs to pass to avoid a government shutdown in a little more than two weeks. Louisiana is known for rough-and-tumble politics — Edwards handily beat GOP Sen. David Vitter in last year’s gubernatorial race — but the rival sides are united now.
“We’ve all been working really well together to stay focused on helping people get back in their houses, and that’s where our focus needs to be,” said Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 3 Republican in the House.
Edwards wasn’t the only governor in Washington this week. Another visitor, GOP Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, met with top Republicans on Zika aid on Tuesday and Wednesday — and was spitting fire at Democrats for holding up a GOP-drafted measure to fight the virus, which can cause grave birth defects and is spreading in Florida. But Scott arrived just as the long-stalled Zika measure appears about to break free.
Scott said Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida had “turned his back on Floridians” by supporting a filibuster of the measure over a contentious provision targeting Planned Parenthood.
“This is about pregnant women and developing babies and he said, you know, that he was going to play politics instead,” Scott said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who joined Scott at a meeting with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., went out of his way Wednesday to praise Nelson for “his partnership and hard work” on Zika.
Edwards, meanwhile, met with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who was “noncommittal” as to whether Louisiana will get Obama’s full $2.6 billion request to rebuild housing and infrastructure ruined by the floods. He’s finding that the Capitol works at a much slower pace and is a stingier place than it was when Katrina smashed Louisiana a decade ago.
Edwards has a meeting with Obama on Friday after sitting down with two Cabinet members last week, including budget director Shaun Donovan, who submitted the administration’s official request Tuesday evening.
“It’s incumbent upon us to have good relationships and good communication regardless of party, but it’s just easier when you are in the same party. And I think that has been helpful when I’ve been meeting with the president but also with his Cabinet secretaries,” Edwards said. “But it’s also obviously helpful to have folks from the Louisiana congressional delegation who can work the Republican side of the aisle.”
Timing may also work in Edwards’ favor. Part of the difficulty for the Zika request was that it traveled alone in the middle of the political season. It’s now catching a ride on the stopgap spending bill, which is the sole must-do item before Congress adjourns for the elections. Most of the flood aid seems likely to advance in a year-end spending bill, but the Louisianans are pushing hard for some aid now. They may have a potent ally.
“We want to try to find ways to help Louisiana even at this real late date,” said the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., who met with Edwards on Thursday.
This story has been corrected to replace ‘not’ with ‘now’ in the second-to-last paragraph, so it reads, “It’s now catching a ride on the stopgap spending bill …”