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Harvey response puts squeeze on GOP
GOP leaders will be put to the test next week when Congress returns to Washington to consider what's likely to be a multibillion-dollar aid package for the communities affected by Hurricane Harvey.
The Republicans rose to power on vows to rein in deficit spending, and fiscal hawks on and off Capitol Hill are already bristling at the idea of moving a Harvey relief bill without paying for it elsewhere in the budget.
Yet Congress has a long tradition of responding to natural disasters with emergency funds that pile on to the deficit, and the massive devastation caused by Harvey along the Gulf Coast - combined with the voices of powerful Texas Republicans urging immediate relief - puts enormous pressure on GOP leaders to drop their insistence on deficit neutrality for the sake of political expediency.
"Details are still developing. However, we expect this package to move quickly," said Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), who represents parts of Houston and its northern suburbs.
The aid package is just another huge hurdle facing Republican leaders already scrambling for a strategy to fund the government and raise the federal borrowing limit before end-of-September deadlines.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who as chairman of the House Budget Committee in 2013 had opposed a pair of emergency funding bills for areas in the Northeast hit by Superstorm Sandy, has so far been silent on the offset question.
Several other GOP leaders, including Reps. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), had also voted against the Sandy package, as did almost every GOP member of the Texas delegation - opposition that drew howls from Northeastern Republicans who felt spurned, then and now.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, indicated this week that he won't insist on offsets for a Harvey package, though the group is warning against extraneous provisions unrelated to the storm.
"It is not our position that disaster relief funding needs to be offset elsewhere, no," Meadows spokesman Ben Williamson told The Hill. "Broadly, our goal is to keep the focus of a disaster relief package on actual relief, rather than allowing a bill to become a vehicle for special interests or unrelated pet projects."
The Club for Growth, an influential conservative group, said it wants the Harvey aid to be paid for, which could put pressure on conservative lawmakers.
Heritage Action, another powerful conservative voice, did not go so far, but warned that it will insist on offsets for any funding provisions "that go beyond serving immediate needs."
"Congress should work with [the Office of Management and Budget] and [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] to produce a small, targeted relief package that is truly emergency in nature," said Dan Holler, Heritage Action's vice president. "Anything spending outside the scope of that strict definition should be offset."
Highlighting the difficult balancing act for the GOP, many Republicans have been silent about their preferred approach. The Hill contacted more than 50 GOP offices in recent days asking if they'll insist on offsets, and only a handful responded.
Another issue for GOP leaders to figure out is whether to tie the Harvey package to other must-pass legislation or to move it separately.
The larger package would be simpler, and it would be easier to move bills raising the debt ceiling and funding the government if they were paired with Harvey relief.
President Trump said earlier this week that he wants to move quickly on a stand-alone relief bill, however, and Meadows has warned GOP leaders against tying aid to the debt bill.
Adding to the uncertainty, Harvey is still an active storm moving its way across Louisiana into Mississippi; Houston, which suffered the brunt of the flooding, is still drying out; and accurate cost assessments are likely weeks or months away.
Already, though, Texas lawmakers are warning that the federal cost will be astronomical.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) estimated Thursday that "the federal government may pay $80 billion" of a relief and rebuilding effort he pegged at $1 trillion.
"It's a massive undertake," Sessions said in an interview on Fox Business Network's "Varney & Co." program.
Another Texas Republican, Rep. Michael Burgess, said the extent of Harvey's damage may not be known for months, requiring Congress to appropriate multiple tranches of aid money.
"There will be a secondary wave of federal dollars that are appropriated, and likely as not, there will be a third wave," Burgess said Thursday on CNN.
But the Dallas-area congressman said he had also been concerned about billions in Hurricane Katrina and Sandy relief aid going unspent.
"I want to be certain that the help gets where it's needed, when it's needed," Burgess said, "but, yes, we do have a responsibility to be the stewards of the taxpayer dollar. And that's a concurrent responsibility."
Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) said he wishes Congress had already budgeted aid funding for natural disasters such as Harvey rather than relying on supplementals.
"When you are $20 trillion in debt with $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities, it becomes clear that rationality is not present in our federal fiscal management," Brat told The Hill on Thursday.
"The aid will be paid for either by the current generation or the next generation," he said, "and the political drama always obscures this crucial fact."
Another Freedom Caucus lawmaker, Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), agreed with Brat that the federal budgets should already cover disaster relief. He also backs a balanced budget amendment, which would prevent the government from spending more than it takes in each year.
Those concerns are being echoed by Republicans in the upper chamber. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) on Thursday hammered the Sandy package as "a pork-barrel spending binge."
"There are legitimate needs in Texas and Louisiana. We should respond. That will be expensive," he told a local business group, according to local reports. "But it is not an occasion to just load this up like a Christmas tree."