California wildfires prompt deficit debate in Congress

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 McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyOn The Money: Treasury rejects Dem subpoena for Trump tax returns | Companies warn trade war about to hit consumers | Congress, White House to launch budget talks next week | Trump gets deal to lift steel tariffs on Mexico, Canada Congressional leaders to launch budget talks with White House RNC chair on Alabama abortion bill: I would have exceptions for rape, incest MORE (R-Calif.) in a tough spot as he seeks the Speaker’s gavel.

McCarthy, along with Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanDebate with Donald Trump? Just say no Ex-Trump adviser says GOP needs a better health-care message for 2020 Liz Cheney faces a big decision on her future MORE (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.

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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 GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiOvernight Defense: Lawmakers on edge over Iran tensions | Questions rise after State pulls personnel from Iraq | Senators demand briefing | House panel advances 0B Pentagon spending bill | Warren offers plan on climate threats to military House Dems unveil bill to limit Pentagon's ability to transfer military construction dollars Unchain seniors from chained inflation index MORE (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 HuffmanJared William HuffmanOvernight Energy: Dems dismiss Interior chief's work calendars as 'fake' | Buttigieg climate plan includes carbon tax | Poll finds growing number say climate is crucial 2020 issue Dem criticizes newest calendars for Trump Interior chief as 'fake' Human rights bill on ANWR ignores humans and their rights MORE (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 ThompsonCharles (Mike) Michael ThompsonDems highlight NYT article on Trump's business losses in 'tax gap' hearing 20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform Kudlow said he doesn't expect Trump tax law to be reconsidered MORE (D) and Doug LaMalfaDouglas (Doug) LaMalfaThirty-four GOP members buck Trump on disaster bill The 23 Republicans who voted against the anti-hate resolution House passes anti-hate measure amid Dem tensions MORE (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 CantorEric Ivan CantorGOP faces tough battle to become 'party of health care' 737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington House Republicans find silver lining in minority MORE'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 ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseTrump encouraged Scalise to run for governor in Louisiana: report We owe a debt of gratitude to all our police officers and their families House votes to extend flood insurance program MORE (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 HensarlingThomas (Jeb) Jeb HensarlingMaxine Waters is the Wall Street sheriff the people deserve Ex-GOP congressman heads to investment bank The next two years of federal housing policy could be positive under Mark Calabria MORE (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 NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTrump ICE director nominee called administration 'heartless' for forcing him out: report Acting DHS secretary threatened to quit after clashing with Miller: report Trump wants border wall black, pointed: report MORE, who pledged the federal government’s assistance in combating the fires.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: 'I will not let Iran have nuclear weapons' Rocket attack hits Baghdad's Green Zone amid escalating tensions: reports Buttigieg on Trump tweets: 'I don't care' MORE 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.”