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On Sandy Relief, GOP Is Stiffing Its Own

People in New York and New Jersey are up in arms about House leaders' decision to adjourn late Tuesday night after the big "fiscal cliff" vote without also voting on the $60 billion relief package for Hurricane Sandy. The Daily News' cover headline, under a picture of John Boehner and Eric Cantor, reads: "FISCAL STIFFS: D.C. dolts finally pass stopgap deal, but stick it to Sandy vics by axing aid vote." GOP House leaders are being excoriated not only by Democrats from New York and New Jersey but by House Republicans from the two states. Rep. Michael Grimm, a Staten Island Republican, called it a "betrayal." Rep. Peter King, of Long Island, went furthest, declaring on CNN: “I’m saying right now, anyone from New York or New Jersey who contributes one penny to Congressional Republicans is out of their minds. Because what they did last night was put a knife in the back of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans. It was an absolute disgrace.”

What's behind House Republicans' resistance to the package? The official line is that they are worried, as with any other big spending, about its cost. They want it to be offset by other cuts and pared back (the bill had been larded up with non-Sandy items, including relief for other regions for past events). “Sometimes when you ask for too much, you don’t get anything,” Sen. Roy Blount, of Missouri, told CNN. It's not hard to wonder, though, whether stiffing New York and New Jersey has to do with the states' political coloring—both blue, one is governed by a high-profile Democrat and possible presidential aspirant, the other by a Republican whom many in his party blame for helping Barack Obama win reelection, who today in characteristically no-holds-barred fashion declared the House's punting on the vote "disappointing and disgusting to watch." Is holding off on the relief bill payback by a party that has an ever-dwindling hold in the Northeast?

If so, there's a sad irony at play for those in the most affected areas: Republicans are, perhaps more than they realize, stiffing their own voters. The fact is, the parts of New York and New Jersey hit hardest by Sandy tended to be far more Republican-leaning than the states as a whole. Obama won New Jersey by nearly 18 percentage points, but he lost the two big coastal counties, Ocean and Monmouth, with only 41 and 47 percent of the vote, respectively. He won New York City with a whopping 81 percent of the vote. But among the few pockets of the city that Mitt Romney carried were the precincts hit hardest by Sandy, including southern Staten Island and Belle Harbor in the Rockaways.

What are we to make of this? Well, for one thing, that as our political landscape becomes more starkly sorted between red and blue, it is important to keep in mind that the clustering often happens at a more local level than we realize—there are very red islands in blue seas, and vice versa. Also, that gerrymandering can come at a real cost to citizens in need of serious help. The more that seats are carved into reliably Republican or Democratic enclaves and the less that members need to worry about winning reelection, the less incentive there is for party leaders to keep them in fine fettle with their constituents, whether through routine earmarks or through emergency aid after a disaster. In New Jersey, for instance, the 2010 redistricting made the two districts that represent much of coastal New Jersey safer territory for the Republican incumbents: Jon Runyan, who won his formerly swing district by 9 points, and Chris Smith, who won his by 18 points. A House leader looking ahead to 2014 would see little reason to worry about those members' prospects.

One exception to this might be Grimm, whose district encompassing Staten Island and southern Brooklyn is relatively coherently drawn, and is also relatively competitive—he won reelection in November by 6.6 percentage points, against a lackluster challenger. Grimm, as it happens, is also under ongoing federal investigation for possible campaign finance violations. If he is now lashing out at his own party's leaders, it's surely in part because he realizes that they, in stiffing New York, could end up infuriating just enough of his constituents to flip a red district to blue, and thus bring it into harmony with a broader Northeastern region that national Republican leaders see ever less reason to give a damn about.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis