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House approves Harvey aid as debt wrangling begins
The House on Wednesday approved $7.85 billion in Hurricane Harvey disaster relief, setting up a controversial legislative maneuver in which the bill is expected to be paired in the Senate with legislation raising the debt ceiling.
The Harvey aid was easily cleared in an overwhelming 419-3 vote, but the margin could be closer if lawmakers are asked to vote again for a package that combines Harvey aid with the debt ceiling bill. All three no votes came from Republican lawmakers.
The package would set up a tough vote for many House Republicans, who want to back relief for Harvey victims but do not want to vote on legislation that raises the debt ceiling, but does nothing to restrict future government spending.
As the House debated the Harvey bill, President Trump met with congressional leaders from both parties: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
The White House backs merging debt relief and Harvey aid, a position first articulated by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on "Fox News Sunday." He said the costs for disaster relief may push up the deadline for the debt ceiling - a situation that could become more urgent if the Category 5 Hurricane Irma hits the Florida coast.
Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, endorsed the idea on Tuesday, framing it as the best way to help stricken residents from his state - and to ensure that the spigot of support is not cut off.
But the plan has won groans from House conservatives, meaning Republicans will probably need Democratic votes to move the package not only through the Senate, but through the House as well.
The House Freedom Caucus on Tuesday took a position that they would only vote for a debt ceiling increase if it capped federal spending at 20 percent of GDP.
"We should quickly pass a bill to assist victims with no add-on's, no pork spending, and no attachments to gain leverage over separate issues," House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) wrote in a Washington Examiner op-ed published Wednesday.
The three Republicans who voted against the bill on Wednesday were Reps. Justin Amash (Mich.), Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and Thomas Massie (Ky.).
In a tweet, Amash wrote that Congress should provide disaster funding, but that it should be offset with other spending cuts to prevent future generations from having to pay for the bill. Congress did not offset Wednesday's spending.
Democrats, seizing on their possible leverage, earlier on Wednesday said they wanted a shorter-term debt ceiling hike of three months to pair with the Harvey aid. Republican leaders and the White House prefer a much longer hike that would ensure that Congress would not have to raise the nation's borrowing limit again until after the midterm elections.
Schumer and Pelosi said the plan made sense because Republicans are having "difficulty in finding the votes for their plan."
Ryan, however, pronounced the Democratic demand "ridiculous" at a press event ahead of the White House meeting.
"I think that's a ridiculous idea. ... We've got all this devastation in Texas; we've got another unprecedented hurricane about to hit Florida. And they want to play politics with the debt ceiling?" he said.
"I think that's ridiculous and disgraceful that they want to play politics with the debt ceiling at this moment when we have fellow citizens in need, [so we can] respond to these hurricanes so that we don't strand them."
A Democratic aide said the three-month offer would allow Congress to avoid defaulting and give an initial round of recovery funding "while allowing Democrats to push their priorities in the upcoming negotiations, particularly the DREAM Act."
The strategy could also give Democrats more leverage: It would set up another fight over raising the debt ceiling right before Christmas, when the GOP-led Congress will also need to pass a bill to avert a government shutdown.
Yet it could also pose some risks for Democrats, who would be in the position of having to oppose aid for Harvey if Republicans simply add a longer-term debt hike to the Harvey aid bill.
Wednesday's bill will provide $7.4 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) disaster relief fund, and $450 million for the Small Business Administration's disaster loan program, which provides loans to businesses and homeowners hit by disaster.
The disaster relief fund has run low on funding since Harvey unloaded 50 inches of water on some parts of Texas, including Houston, the country's fourth largest city. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) estimated the damage may be as high as $180 billion.
As of Tuesday, the disaster relief fund only had $541 million left for Harvey-related relief. Another $472 million in the fund is being put toward preparations for Hurricane Irma, which is expected to hit Puerto Rico and Florida in the coming days, and wildfires in California.
"We want to reassure the people of Texas and Louisiana that we are there for them," said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), the bill's sponsor.