Stephanie Grace: Mardi Gras heads to Washington

As he took the floor at Friday’s Jefferson Chamber cocktail party, one of many such gatherings during the annual Washington Mardi Gras festivities, Jefferson Parish President John Young thanked the members of Congress in the group’s midst for tackling the devastating side effects of the Biggert-Waters flood insurance bill in a bipartisan manner. Such across-the-aisle cooperation almost never happens these days, Young noted; in today’s Congress, he said, the two sides would have trouble agreeing to honor Mother Theresa.

“Republicans would support that,” chimed in U.S. Sen. David Vitter, prompting a hearty round of laughter and a smiling, exaggerated head shake and tsk tsk from his Democratic counterpart, Mary Landrieu.

Such good-natured exchanges are actually pretty commonplace at Washington Mardi Gras, a decades-old tradition that harks back to the days when the Louisiana delegation was known for cooperation and camaraderie across party lines.

Just as in Congress, that era among Louisiana’s politicians has largely passed; Vitter and Landrieu may have shared a joke on Friday, but everyone in the crowded room knew perfectly well that, even now, Vitter is maneuvering for the second election in a row to replace Landrieu with a like-minded Republican.

But Young was right about this: If there’s an issue that can, should and, in many ways, does unite the state’s Republicans and Democrats alike, it’s the threat to the local economy that the new rates, the result of eliminating subsidies and changing other rules to the National Flood Insurance program, presents. Given the delegation’s single-minded focus on the issue and some key developments elsewhere in the country, there’s considerable optimism that some sort of fix will reach the president’s desk.

Which is not to say that electoral politics aren’t part of the equation. Quite the contrary.

Both Landrieu and her lead Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, have played lead roles in pursuing amendments to Biggert-Waters, which, through various provisions and in several ways, is sending federal flood insurance rates so high that customers could be forced to abandon their homes or unable to sell because buyers would face unaffordable insurance bills.

Landrieu was a prime mover in a Senate bill that passed last month by a surprisingly wide margin of 67-32. The bill delays rate increases for four years and mandates an affordability study but, despite widespread support in the House, never got a vote.

Cassidy is a key proponent of a House alternative introduced Friday night and expected to see a quick vote this week. It would repeal several damaging changes that Biggert-Waters introduced, including a provision ending subsidies once a home is sold. It would institute a $25 per primary residence fee — more for second homes and businesses — to make up for the loss in revenue.

It’s tempting to call these the Democratic and Republican alternatives, but both have widespread support across party lines. The Senate version has strong backing from Vitter, among other Republicans. The House bill has the nod of Rep. Steve Scalise, head of the large Republican Study Committee conservative caucus, and could also well attract Rep. Cedric Richmond, who’s consulting closely with fellow Democrat Maxine Waters, the original bill’s namesake. Richmond said Saturday that he’s still working through some cost concerns.

Obviously, Landrieu and Cassidy would each like to have her or his name on a successful fix, but the truth is that, if something passes, both would deserve credit. Landrieu’s been pushing the issue for years on her side, and Cassidy has been pressuring conservatives with ideological objections on his.

But while electoral concerns often hinder bipartisan efforts, circumstances might be lining up the other way this time.

Neither lawmaker is a named sponsor, for probably the same reason, so that giving either one a victory doesn’t deter potential supporters. Instead, the Senate version carries the name of New Jersey’s Bob Menendez and Georgia’s Johnny Isakson, a Democrat and a Republican. The House amendment’s lead author is New York Republican Michael Grimm.

Still, leaders on both sides have clearly recognized the political value in backing a fix and helping their candidates in the Senate race chalk up a popular accomplishment.

On the Democratic side, President Barack Obama has muted his initial concerns over the Senate bill. Despite heavy resistance among tea party Republicans, Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor are also said to have converted from opponents to backers and are expected to support bypassing the committee headed by one of the House’s most skeptical members, Texas’ Jeb Hensarling, and bring it straight to the floor.

Also helping set the stage have been events elsewhere in the country, from floods in the heartland to the devastation in the northeast from Hurricane Sandy, which created much broader constituencies for affordable flood insurance, and added a clear sense of urgency and a muscular lobbying effort by various affected industries, from real estate to banking, spearheaded by groups such as GNO Inc. And a special election campaign now underway in Florida to fill a vacant congressional seat has given politicians a frightening glimpse of the future: flood insurance increases have become a major issue in the race. Given how close the topic hits to home for so many voters, no elected official wants to be the one who didn’t try to fix the problem.

Of course, even if the House passes its bill, there will still be much to resolve. Would one chamber adopt the measure passed by the other, or would proponents get together and work out a deal that incorporates elements of both? It’s too soon to say.

But one thing seems to be true: This might be one of those rare instances in which a looming election ensures that something will actually get done.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. For more notes from Washington Mardi Gras, read her blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/gracenotes.