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May 21, 2024 | In The News

Angry Airport Encounter Pushes Hurricane-Relief Bill Forward

WSJ —The path that led Rep. Greg Steube (R., Fla.) to find common cause with House Democrats and make an end run past his party’s leadership started at the airport shoeshine stand last month.

Steube, who represents a storm-battered coastal stretch between Sarasota and Fort Myers where many homes still have tarped-over roofs, recalled that he was getting his boots polished at Reagan National Airport when an irate constituent approached him, pointing a finger at the congressman and reminding Steube that he had said he would deliver a tax bill to help disaster victims. 

Steube said he explained the legislative steps he had been taking for more than a year to nudge the bill through Congress. He decided to act more assertively. 

“We’ve given almost $200 billion to Ukraine, and the American people who in my district suffered Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Idalia, just in the last two years, haven’t even been able to deduct their expenses from their taxes, which is ridiculous,” he said. “It’s hard for me to go back to my district.” 

Steube filed a discharge petition, a procedural maneuver that lets a majority of House members force a vote on a specific bill. With Democrats’ help, he won the chance to split his tax bill off from larger legislation that is stalled in the Senate. Steube will get his vote Tuesday evening. 

That is not business as usual. Typically in the House, the majority party and the speaker keep tight control over which bills get a vote. Republican leaders didn’t see a need to advance the stand-alone disaster-relief proposal since the House had passed it as part of a larger tax bill. 

Steube relied on a force that has been key to the few major bills that succeeded this Congress: an ad hoc bipartisan coalition. 

Backed by a handful of other Republicans from disaster-stricken areas and most House Democrats, Steube’s petition hit the magic number of 218 last week. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R., La.), who had just relied on a bipartisan vote to save his speakership, relented and scheduled Tuesday’s vote. 

“The Democrats were very organized in the way they got on board,” said Steube, whose other top issues—such as limiting transgender women in women’s sports and trying to impeach President Biden—don’t always endear him to the minority party. 

Democrats who supported forcing the bill’s advancement saw it as a practical way to help people who are struggling after a natural disaster and make a point to Republicans on bipartisan cooperation. 

The House is considering the bill under an expedited process that requires a two-thirds majority. If that fails, Steube can force a simple up-or-down vote on a slightly different version. 

Tax policy divides the parties, but at $4.9 billion, Steube’s bill is relatively small and uncontroversial. The House passed it in January, inside a larger package that would revive expired business-tax provisions and expand the child tax credit. That broader measure has been stuck for months in the Senate over objections unrelated to the disaster tax pieces. 

Steube’s bill would let taxpayers get larger deductions for losses suffered during recent major disasters, including wildfires in Maui and Hurricane Ian in Steube’s district. 

Victims could deduct losses exceeding $500, instead of only being allowed to deduct losses above 10% of adjusted gross income under the tax law that would otherwise apply. And they could take deductions atop the standard deduction instead of needing to itemize to claim them. 

The bill would also let people exclude from income certain payments received due to wildfires since 2014 or due to last year’s train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. 

But even a strong House vote might not get Steube’s bill over the finish line in the Senate. 

Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) signaled that he wouldn’t favor allowing a stand-alone vote on the disaster bill, saying that Republican senators would get to show whether they support disaster tax breaks when the Senate votes on the broader bill. That vote hasn’t been scheduled as Senate Republicans have demanded changes that Democrats say they can’t accept.

“Senate Democrats don’t want to drop our priorities and reward Republican intransigence,” Wyden said.