Okla. Recovery Spotlights Rep. Cole's Support For Sandy Aid

May 31, 2013
Originally published on May 31, 2013 1:39 pm

When Congress voted on federal relief for the victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey earlier this year, five of the seven Oklahoma representatives and senators voted no. Rep. Tom Cole, one of the two who voted yes, warned that someday Oklahoma would be asking for help — and that day came last week after a massive tornado.

The storm ripped through the city of Moore, in Cole's home district, killing 24 people and destroying thousands of homes.

Usually when he holds a town hall meeting back in his district, Cole starts off with a quick update on what's happening in Washington, D.C. But as he stood at the front of an auditorium in the town of Ada on Thursday, the homefront was very much on his mind.

"My last 10 days really hasn't had a lot to do with Washington, D.C., directly. It's had a lot to do with Oklahoma," he said. In Moore, homes are wrecked beyond recognition and metal siding still dangles from tree branches.

"I've lived there for 53 years," Cole said. "These are all neighborhoods I know and friends' businesses that are gone."

His neighborhood dry cleaner was wiped out. The school where he worked as a groundskeeper when he was in college was destroyed. "So that's been pretty dominant for me, as you can imagine," he said. "Now let's talk about Washington, D.C."

One of the first accomplishments Cole mentioned was helping to pass the disaster aid bill for the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. Cole argued in favor of the bill on the House floor.

"Each member ought to recognize" that at some point his or her area "will be hit by some disaster, and they will be here seeking support," he said.

Most House Republicans voted against the aid for Hurricane Sandy; five of the seven members of the Oklahoma congressional delegation voted no. They objected to spending unrelated to the hurricane in the bill — that, and its adding to the deficit.

"It's about priorities," said Tom Coburn, Oklahoma's junior senator, who was outspoken in his opposition to the bill. He's a Republican, as is every other member of Congress from the only state where every county voted against Barack Obama.

"We don't have the courage to actually go through and make hard choices about what works and what doesn't, what's a priority and what is not," Coburn said.

As it turns out, money added to the disaster relief fund as part of the Sandy bill is now helping people in Moore, Okla. Rep. Cole had no way of knowing that last winter when he argued in favor of the bill. But now, as a result, it probably won't be necessary to enact a fresh disaster funding bill for the devastation in Moore.

"We're not going to have that problem because we're operating out of already appropriated funds, thanks to — guess what — the generosity of the American people," Cole said.

But even in Moore, some still question whether Cole's vote was the right choice.

At a restaurant called Sunny Side Up, a group of men, all members of the First Baptist Church, have gathered for breakfast.

Ken Webster came away from the tornado unscathed. But it was close.

"I'm right across the street from the school that got hit. I'm four houses away," he said.

Churches and private citizens have stepped in to help, but if government aid really is needed, those funds should be cut from somewhere else in the budget, he said.

"I think federal aid should be offset. We need to balance our budget," he said.

Webster is a big fan of Tom Cole and seems a bit surprised that his congressman voted for the Sandy aid bill. He questions whether Cole might have second thoughts about the vote now, but then he said, "Hey, you know, I think that Tom Cole can make his little mistakes and I'll still forgive him."

Cole stands by his vote. As he sees it, with divided government, any bill that passes the Republican House and the Democratic Senate and gets a signature from the president is going to require some compromise.

"I actually think people are much more reasonable than politicians sometimes. And if you'll come back and explain the issue to them, they usually understand. And that's fine. That's what politics is all about," he said.

And sometimes something comes along that transcends politics — like what happened in Moore.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When the U.S. Congress voted on federal relief for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, five of the seven Oklahoma representatives and senators voted no. Of the two who voted yes on Sandy relief, Rep. Tom Cole was one. He warned that some day, Oklahoma would be asking for help. That day came last week in the form of a massive tornado, which ripped through the city of Moore in Congressman Cole's home district, killing 24.

He was home this week, to survey the damage and talk to his constituents. NPR's Tamara Keith was there.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: When Republican Congressman Tom Cole returns to his district and holds a town hall meeting, he usually starts off with a quick update on what's happening in Washington. But yesterday, as he stood at the front of an auditorium in the town of Aida, the home front was very much on his mind.

REP. TOM COLE: My last 10 days really hasn't had much to do with Washington, D.C., directly. It's had an awful lot to do with Oklahoma.

KEITH: Moore, Okla., where homes are wrecked beyond recognition and metal siding still dangles from tree branches.

COLE: I've lived there for 53 years, so these are all neighborhoods I know, and friends' businesses and homes that are gone.

KEITH: His neighborhood dry cleaner was wiped out. The school where he worked as a groundskeeper when he was in college - completely destroyed.

COLE: So, that's been pretty dominant for me, as you can imagine, the last couple of weeks. Now, let's talk about Washington, D.C.

KEITH: One of the first accomplishments he mentions is helping to pass the disaster aid bill for the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. Cole voted for the bill and argued in favor of it on the House floor.

COLE: Each member ought to recognize at some point, he or she's area will be hit by some disaster and they will be here seeking support.

KEITH: Most House Republicans voted against the aid for Hurricane Sandy. Five of the seven members of the Oklahoma congressional delegation voted no. They objected to spending unrelated to the hurricane in the Sandy bill - that and it's adding to the deficit.

SEN. TOM COBURN: It's about priority.

KEITH: Tom Coburn, Oklahoma's junior senator is a Republican, as is every other member of Congress from this, the only state where every county voted against Barack Obama. Coburn was outspoken in his opposition to the Sandy aid bill.

COBURN: We don't have the courage to actually go through and make hard choices about what works and what doesn't, what's a priority and what is not.

KEITH: It turns out money added to the disaster relief fund as part of the Sandy bill is now helping people in Moore, Oklahoma. Congressman Cole had no way of knowing that last winter when he argued in favor of the bill. But now, as a result, it probably won't be necessary to enact a fresh disaster funding bill for the devastation in Moore.

COLE: We're not going to have that problem 'cause we're operating out of already appropriated funds, thanks to, guess what, the generosity of the American people.

KEITH: But even in Moore, some still question whether Cole's vote was the right choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANGING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You want breakfast?

KEITH: At a restaurant called Sunny Side Up, a group of men, all members of the First Baptist Church, gather for breakfast.

KEN WEBSTER: I think federal aid should be offset. You know, we need to balance our budget.

KEITH: Ken Webster came away from the tornado unscathed - but it was close.

WEBSTER: I'm right across the street from the school that got hit. I'm four houses away.

KEITH: He says churches and private citizens have stepped in to help, and if the government really is needed, those funds should be cut from somewhere else in the budget. He's a big fan of Tom Cole and seems a bit surprised that his congressman voted for the Sandy aid bill.

WEBSTER: Well, you know, I mean, let's face it, we all have second thoughts. He probably - if you ask him - if you had it do over again and voted for that, would you want to offset it?

KEITH: I tell Webster that Cole absolutely stands by his vote.

WEBSTER: Oh yeah. Hey, you know, I think that Tom Cole can make his little mistakes and I'll still forgive him.

KEITH: As Cole sees it, with divided government, any bill that passes the Republican House and the Democratic Senate and gets a signature from the president is going to require some compromise.

COLE: I actually think people are much more reasonable than politicians sometimes. And if you'll come back and explain the issue to them, they usually understand, so. And if they don't, that's fine. That's what politics is all about.

KEITH: And sometimes something comes along that transcends politics, like what happened in Moore. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Oklahoma City.

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