January 2, 2013

Chris Christie (AP)

If you thought John Boehner had a tough day yesterday, things just went south again for him at a dizzying pace. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie spent a good half hour at a press conference harshly attacking Boehner for spiking a vote on disaster aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Christie’s assault on Boehner was brutal and unrelenting. He claimed he’d received assurances that the aid would be voted on — only to have four of his calls to Boehner go unreturned last night. He repeatedly lavished praise on Eric Cantor, separating him out as helpful to New Jersey where Boehner wasn’t. Christie ripped into the “toxic internal politics of the House majority,” hinting that Boehner’s internal standing is what motivated the spiked vote.

It’s unclear to me how Christie’s attack will impact Boehner himself. But his rant is going to get a lot of play, and could, at least in the short term, further tarnish the House GOP brand. Christie seems to have a lot of appeal to independents who believe (I don’t, but they seem to) he’s a straight shooter who is above politics — recall the GOP angst over Christie’s praise for Obama’s Sandy leadership for precisely this reason. In this context, this seemed like one of the most telling lines of all from Christie:

“This used to be something that was not political. Disaster relief was something that you didn’t play games with.”

The thing about this is that some Republicans actually have had a conflicted attitude towards federal disaster relief for some time. Despite Christie’s praise of Cantor, the House Majority Leader took criticism from fellow Republicans for suggesting that Missouri tornado victims should get federal aid only if Dems in Congress agreed to offset the costs with spending cuts. Cantor also suggested something similar about disaster relief after an earthquake in his home state of Virginia. Republicans have historically been skeptical of the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And as you may remember, former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney suggested transferring disaster relief to the states.

What drove Boehner to spike the vote? Dem Rep. Rob Andrews of New Jersey offered this suggestion: “the Republican leadership didn’t want to be anywhere near a big spending bill after the fiasco of their handling the tax debate.”

This is not to say Republicans can’t make a legitimate argument against the Senate’s version of the disaster relief bill; some conservatives have argued the Senate loaded it up with pork. Rather, the point is that this was apparently enough to make it too controversial for Boehner to honor the promise to Christie that the House GOP would deliver at a moment of crisis. So the problem is partly with Boehner, but it’s also partly with the dynamics inside the Republican Party — a place where hostility towards government spending can eclipse support for a quick federal response to a disaster — that put him in that situation. Christie may have a beef with Boehner, but he also should have one with his party, and his own.

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UPDATE: It was just announced that the House GOP will hold a vote on the aid package on January 15th. Here’s video of Christie:

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.