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Fact-checking comments about Rubio and DeSantis votes against Hurricane Sandy aid

PolitiFact | In 2013, then-U.S. Rep. DeSantis voted against hurricane aid for Sandy’s victims.
Gov. Ron DeSantis talks during a news conference on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, at the Miami-Dade College Wolfson Campus.
Gov. Ron DeSantis talks during a news conference on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, at the Miami-Dade College Wolfson Campus. [ ALIE SKOWRONSKI | Miami Herald ]
Published Oct. 3|Updated Oct. 3

When a hurricane strikes Florida, it provides a rare moment when Republican and Democratic politicians agree on policy: They all want federal money to help the state recover from devastation.

When Hurricane Ian hit Florida, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, joined Florida’s full congressional delegation in signing a letter to President Joe Biden seeking a major disaster declaration, which allows for temporary aid. Gov. Ron DeSantis, also a Republican, sent Biden a similar letter.

The requests from the Republicans for help from a Democratic president and administration prompted many Twitter users to suggest that Rubio and DeSantis are hypocrites. They said the Republicans opposed federal relief for New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy battered those states in 2012.

“Just a reminder to New York … Marco Rubio and Ron DeSantis (who was then in Congress) voted against aid for Hurricane Sandy. But because we are New York, we care about everyone,” tweeted Yuh-Line Niou, a Democrat who represents areas of Manhattan in the New York Assembly. “Even when they don’t care about us.”

Craig Fugate, a former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Hurricane Ian could be “one of the highest losses in hurricanes in recent U.S. history.” One early estimate said property damage losses could be $40 billion.

The major disaster declaration Biden signed Thursday unlocks the Disaster Relief Fund so FEMA can provide immediate aid, including temporary housing assistance. The declaration will result in billions of dollars flowing to Florida, said Steve Ellis, president of the government spending watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. But if lawmakers want to provide more relief, they will need to pass supplemental appropriations.

Related: Biden calls Hurricane Ian an 'American crisis'

When asked to back up Niou’s claim, her spokesperson pointed to articles about Rubio’s vote against Hurricane Sandy aid. We looked at multiple votes by the lawmakers and news analysis to get a more complete picture of their votes in 2012 and 2013.

Related: Disaster politics: When Marco Rubio faced heat for opposing aid

Votes on Hurricane Sandy packages

Hurricane Sandy made landfall Oct. 29, 2012, and devastated portions of the East Coast, including New York and New Jersey.

The path to passing a relief package was slower than after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. Following Hurricane Sandy, President Barack Obama had just been elected to a second term. Conservative Republicans elected in a tea party wave in 2010, and in 2012, they were looking for ways to curb spending.

On Dec. 7, 2012, Obama requested $60.4 billion in emergency appropriations. Three weeks later, the Democratic-led Senate voted 62-32 to approve it, with Rubio voting against. Twelve Republicans joined the Democrats in voting for the bill. Republicans then countered with a stripped-down alternative of $24 billion, which Rubio supported but which failed on a party-line vote.

Rubio said he voted against the larger bill because it contained “unrelated pork.” (“Pork” or “pork barrel” spending is government spending for localized projects secured primarily or solely for bringing money to political representatives’ districts.)

There was funding for many things in the $60.4 billion package, including money for a declared fishery disaster in Alaska, Ellis said. But nearly everything had some relationship to a disaster — not only Sandy — although some were more tenuous than others.

“The question is did it have to be funded in an emergency supplemental,” meaning it would allow lawmakers to evade budget caps, Ellis said. “And the question for Sen. Rubio and every other senator, is how much is too much extra stuff and what is the alternative.”

Then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, sought to divide the relief funding. FEMA warned that it would run out of money in January if Congress didn’t provide additional borrowing authority to pay claims. The first vote, a $9.7 billion measure, passed the House on Jan. 4, 2013.

DeSantis, a newly sworn-in congressman, was one of 67 House Republicans who voted against the bill. DeSantis said he sympathized with victims and that those with flood insurance should have their claims paid. But he said that “allowing the program to increase its debt by another $9.7 billion with no plan to offset the spending with cuts elsewhere is not fiscally responsible.”

The funding passed the Senate in a voice vote, in which individual senators’ votes are not recorded. Rubio spokesperson Alex Conant told the Tampa Bay Times that Rubio supported it, calling it a “clean” appropriation. Obama signed the measure into law.

The second part of the disaster relief, a bill for $50.5 billion, passed the Senate on Jan. 28, 2013, 62-36 largely along party lines. Rubio voted against the bill and DeSantis voted against the measure that passed in the House. Obama signed it into law.

Republicans who objected made similar “pork” arguments. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said two-thirds of the bill was pork spending unrelated to hurricane relief.

The data and the assessment of those who studied the Sandy bill say the extras in it amounted to far less than Cruz suggested. We rated the statement Mostly False.

Until Sandy, disaster spending prompted little acrimony, Ellis said. Sometimes, there were quibbles about continued appropriations for a period after a disaster, such as subsequent appropriations for Hurricane Katrina, but not much.

“This changed with Sandy because of two things: One, it affected primarily the ‘blue’ states of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, and two, it came right on the heels of fiscal conservative pushes.”

DeSantis and some of the other Republicans who voted against Sandy relief later would form the Freedom Caucus, which often sought to block Democratic budget deals.

Related: Ron DeSantis wants to lead Florida through hurricanes. He voted against helping Sandy victims.

We contacted a DeSantis spokesperson to ask whether he had any evidence for us to consider about past storm relief spending. Spokesperson Bryan Griffin said, “We are completely focused on hurricane response. As the governor said earlier, we have no time for politics or pettiness.” Rubio’s spokespeople did not respond.

Our ruling

Niou said Rubio and DeSantis “voted against aid for Hurricane Sandy.”

Niou is on firmer ground about DeSantis but omits that Rubio voted against the larger Sandy aid bill but did vote for less extensive bills.

Rubio voted against a $60.4 billion bill for Sandy relief in December 2012, but supported an alternative $24 billion measure that failed. In January 2013, Rubio supported a $9.7 billion aid bill, but not a $50 billion bill.

DeSantis voted against both $9.7 billion and $50 billion in Sandy relief in January 2013 as a newly elected congressman.

We rate this statement Mostly True.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage

HOW TO HELP: Where to donate or volunteer to help Hurricane Ian victims.

FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.

THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.

POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.

WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?

WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.

SCHOOLS: Will schools reopen quickly after Hurricane Ian passes? It depends.

MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

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