Congress grapples with disaster aid
Lawmakers will return to Capitol Hill on Tuesday almost certainly needing to provide another massive aid package, this time to residents of Florida devastated by Hurricane Irma.
The possibility of new disaster aid arises days after Congress approved separate emergency legislation in the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s rampage through Texas.
The focus on disaster recovery, which could takes months to unfold in both Texas and Florida, is unsettling a fall congressional agenda.
“We are again prepared to play our role in the recovery,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor on Monday. “Congress passed a critical down-payment on disaster relief last week. If more assistance is required due to Irma, we’re ready to do what’s needed.”
White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert told reporters Monday that President Trump might ask for additional aid funding, but said that “right now, we have plenty of resources to get through this.”
“The president and [budget director Mick] Mulvaney and others have started the process of a bipartisan discussion on this point,” Bossert said. “We’ll ask for a third, perhaps fourth supplemental for the purpose of rebuilding. We will do it smartly.”
Bossert said that 700,000 people in Texas alone have registered for federal assistance due to Hurricane Harvey.
The National Flood Insurance Program, which is run by FEMA, has about $8.6 billion to address claims. Bossert said if claims exceed that amount, the White House will ask Congress to increase the cap.
It’s not clear just how much money will be needed, but lawmakers said they expected to be tasked with passing billions of dollars in additional disaster relief.
“That was a down payment,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said on MSNBC, referring to last week’s package of $7.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster relief fund, $7.4 billion in emergency funds for Community Development Block Grants and $450 million for the Small Business Administration disaster loan program.
President Trump on Sunday approved a major disaster declaration for Florida, which will provide individuals with assistance and help state and local authorities rebuild infrastructure.
Lawmakers could attach a new hurricane relief bill to the reauthorization for the Federal Aviation Administration, to a children’s health insurance bill that also faces an end-of-September deadline or to a stand-alone measure this week.
While the expected September schedule has been shaken up, Trump has also cleared the decks by agreeing to a surprise deal with Democrats to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling through Dec. 8.
It had been expected that those issues would dominate September, but Trump instead agreed with Democrats to tie both short-term bills to last week’s Harvey package.
The White House argued this was necessary to ensure there were no disruptions in the effort to help the hurricane’s victims, a decision that has earned Trump positive press and that it seems could pay additional dividends after Irma.
Despite the initial $15 billion pump, funds for FEMA could run out soon, and lawmakers in Florida described a long-term battle in their state.
“Well, it was white-knuckle time before the storm. FEMA was running out of money last Friday. Fortunately, we got the $15 billion passed. But that’s only going to last a few weeks now,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said on MSNBC by phone from Orlando.
“And then we’re going to have to do another emergency supplemental appropriations, and that’s only going to last so long. So this kind of costly cleanup and tending to the storm in the aftermath, that’s going to go on for months,” he said.
Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys on Sunday as a Category 4 hurricane but has since been downgraded to a tropical storm as it makes its way north.
It left more than 6.5 million people in Florida, or about 65 percent of the state, without power, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management. It’s expected to hit other Southern states as it moves north, including Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee.
Florida officials have begun damage assessments and debris clearance but won’t know the full impact of the storm for days. Individual counties will start initial damage assessments once conditions improve.
A FEMA spokesperson said “it is too early to speculate on the full impacts of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma,” but said the $7.4 billion in disaster relief approved by Congress will allow the agency “to continue to fully focus on the ongoing preparation, response and recovery needs.”
“FEMA’s top priority is to make sure we have all of the necessary resources on hand to support states, tribes and territories in their efforts to carry out life-saving and life-sustaining activities and to meet the immediate needs of disaster survivors,” the FEMA spokesperson said.
Ninety House Republicans and 17 Senate Republicans voted against last week’s package, largely because it was tied to the debt-limit hike and spending bill.
That total included four Texas Republicans who do not represent regions deemed by FEMA as disaster areas.
McCaul, whose district stretches between Austin and storm-battered Houston, called the votes against the Harvey aid package “unconscionable.”
“When I had people dying and hurting in my home state, it was my duty and moral obligation to help them. And I felt that that vote was a vote of conscience to help people in my state and also now in Florida. I think that’s what Americans do. And I think it’s unconscionable to vote against something like that,” McCaul said.