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California wildfires prompt deficit debate in Congress
Deadly wildfires in California could pose a spending challenge for Republican leaders in Washington ahead of the November midterms, putting House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in a tough spot as he seeks the Speaker's gavel.
McCarthy, along with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), climbed the ranks of GOP leadership largely on promises to rein in deficit spending, which would increase if Congress passes yet another emergency relief bill without offsets in response to the ongoing disaster.
California is expected to request federal funds to recoup damages in the coming weeks after cost assessments are calculated. But with the largest fires still burning - and with more expected to follow as the wildfire season grows longer - some lawmakers are already warning that Congress is just one natural disaster away from pursuing a big boost in emergency disaster aid.
"The big question out there is how many fires, and what else?" Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) said Thursday by phone from Northern California, where several fires are raging. "Another hurricane season is underway - what's going to come of that?
"Those kinds of things would lead to, I would suggest, another emergency supplemental."
After a devastating 2017, California is facing an even tougher wildfire season this year. The state has reported 3,770 wildfires since Jan. 1 - up from 3,440 over the same period last year - which have burned more than 290,000 acres, including parts of Yosemite National Park.
The Carr Fire - the largest of the blazes - has destroyed more than 1,000 homes and killed six people, including two firefighters. And the season has not yet reached its peak.
"We've got some very tenuous and dangerous days ahead," Garamendi said.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said Congress will need to address the wildfire issue next month, when lawmakers are already tasked with passing a spending package to keep the government running beyond Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
"If you look at the scale, especially of the Carr Fire in Redding, I think it's reasonable to assume we're going to need supplemental help," said Huffman, whose district has been hit by the fires. "Whatever supplemental is needed in September, that's the critical time frame to make sure that [a] minibus or omnibus or whatever it is we come up with includes adequate fire disaster relief."
Whether Washington can tackle the issue through normal spending channels remains unclear.
Congress, over the past year, has passed a series of bills providing well over $100 billion in response to hurricanes, flooding, wildfires and other natural disasters - and more than $27 billion remains in the pool, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Additionally, the two-year budget deal secured by Congress earlier this year lifted spending caps on most agencies, freeing up further resources for Washington to respond to natural disasters.
With that cushion, "there is no expectation of an emergency supplemental," said one aide, who also left open the possibility that conditions could change.
"Without a major declaration, it's hard to estimate what would be needed and whether existing FEMA funding would cover it," the aide said, referring to California's expected request for federal aid.
Central to any disaster debate will be whether GOP leaders insist on offsets, a tough choice for McCarthy, the Golden State's most powerful politician in Washington, who needs the backing of conservatives in order to win the Speaker's gavel after Ryan retires at the end of this Congress.
Conservative leaders in the House Freedom Caucus and Republican Study Committee have traditionally demanded offsets for disaster aid packages, and most of them opposed the past year's emergency relief bills for that reason.
"McCarthy will likely try to push it but should only do it at his own peril," warned a conservative GOP aide who's been closely watching the leadership race.
McCarthy's office declined to comment for this story.
California lawmakers, meanwhile, are already talking about ways to combine the damage assessments from different fires in different districts so the numbers meet the threshold for maximum federal assistance. Garamendi said he's spoken to two neighboring members - Reps. Mike Thompson (D) and Doug LaMalfa (R) - to accomplish that goal.
LaMalfa, who represents Redding, could not be reached for comment.
McCarthy's potential dilemma is reminiscent of then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R) initial demand in 2011 that earthquake relief in his home state of Virginia be offset. Democrats attacked Cantor and won, and they're sure to be equally critical of McCarthy if he and other Republicans demand deficit neutrality for this year's wildfires after piling roughly $2 trillion onto the debt with the 2017 tax cuts.
Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), the No. 3 House Republican and a potential candidate for Speaker, has also had to navigate a tricky disaster-related issue in his home state. Last week, Scalise pushed through an extension of flood-insurance funding over the objections of Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), a powerful House conservative and, like Scalise, a former Republican Study Committee chairman.
Hensarling demanded an overhaul to make the debt-ridden National Flood Insurance Program financially sustainable, but Scalise argued that those changes would make flood insurance unaffordable for his New Orleans-area constituents and millions of other flood-prone Americans.
In a speech last December, McCarthy urged his colleagues not to play politics with an $81 billion disaster relief package that provided funding for hurricane and wildfire damage in places like California. A number of California Democrats voted against the measure because they didn't like the underlying government funding bill or thought the disaster aid wasn't sufficient.
"Don't play politics on a vote to give aid to the people of Texas, to the people of Puerto Rico and to the Virgin Islands, to the people of Florida, and to the people of California that are still fighting the fires," McCarthy said at the time. "Don't play politics on a bill where you hope to maybe stop another. That would be the worst of any politics I've seen played here."
For now, the lines of communication are good between California Gov. Jerry Brown and the Trump administration. The Democratic governor, typically a vocal Trump critic, said he had a pleasant phone call with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who pledged the federal government's assistance in combating the fires.
President Trump has granted Brown's request for an emergency declaration for Shasta County's Carr Fire, which frees up funds and assets to help fight the wildfires as well as provide shelter and water for victims.
In the coming weeks, Brown is expected to request Trump declare a major disaster in California. If he does, that would send hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to help rebuild fire-stricken communities like Redding and Yosemite, where the Ferguson Fire has scorched roughly 70,000 acres.
Given that it's only the first week of August, Brown predicted there would be more fires in the state this season.
"We're in for a really rough ride, and it's going to get expensive and it's going to get dangerous," Brown said at a news conference this week, flanked by local and state emergency officials. "We have to apply all our creativity to make the best out of an increasingly bad situation, not just in California but all over America and all over the world."