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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.