Lawmakers say California will eventually get emergency funding for fire relief

Lawmakers say California will eventually get emergency funding for fire relief

Congress is looking to provide emergency disaster funding to California, where wildfires have left at least 60 people dead, but lawmakers say it will take some time.

Returning to Capitol Hill after weeks on the campaign trail, almost all key House and Senate lawmakers this week said California deserved to see a supplemental disaster appropriations bill but couldn’t offer many details on the dollar amount or what shape the legislation would take.

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“There’s been some talk about it. I think we need to meet these emergency needs, like we did for other states,” said Rep. Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenBottom line Republican lobbying firms riding high despite uncertainty of 2020 race Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm MORE (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for crafting and advancing legislation for disaster recovery.

Lawmakers have limited opportunities to provide the funding state officials say they desperately need, as Congress is out of session next week for Thanksgiving.

The House and Senate appropriations committees are also facing a Dec. 7 deadline when funding for several federal agencies expires. If lawmakers don’t pass another funding bill by then, a partial government shutdown will follow.

Frelinghuysen said whatever bill lawmakers write to avoid a shutdown could get wildfire funding attached to it, which could make it easier to get it passed.

“We don’t know when, how, or what’s going to be in the train that leaves the station,” he said. “But obviously the most important for us is to keep the government open and get our seven bills done.”

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The standard process for special disaster appropriations is that the state formally lays out its needs in a letter to Congress. Frelinghuysen said California has not made a request because crews are still fighting fires and surveying the damage.

California is reeling from another deadly fire season after a devastating one in 2017. In August, the Carr Fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes and killed six people, including two firefighters. The ongoing Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., and Woolsey and Hill fires in Malibu, Thousand Oaks and Calabasas have burned more than 240,000 acres. The statewide death toll as of Friday was 66.

In the past year, Congress passed a series of bills providing more than $90 billion in response to hurricanes, flooding, wildfires and other natural disasters — and more than $15 billion remains in the pool as of the end of October, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

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.

“We want the maximum we can get, and I just talked to them about,” Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDemocrats want Biden to debate Trump despite risks Mini-exodus of Trump officials from Commerce to lobby on semiconductors Doug Collins questions Loeffler's trustworthiness in first TV ad MORE (D-Calif.), a member of the Senate Appropriations committee, said Thursday of her conversations with state lawmakers.

In order to attach emergency funding to the next government spending bill, lawmakers would likely need to agree on an amount before Dec. 7.

“The totals have to come in through the states, and so I don’t know if that will be ready, or we’ll have to do a supplemental early in the year. I’m sure that we’re going to have to do something more,” said Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Latest Trump proposal on endangered species could limit future habitat, critics say | House-passed spending bill would block Pebble Mine construction | Interior sends 100K pages of documents to House House-passed spending bill would block Pebble Mine construction OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA rule extends life of toxic coal ash ponds | Flint class action suit against Mich. officials can proceed, court rules | Senate Democrats introduce environmental justice bill MORE (D-Calif.), adding that he’d support a disaster appropriation if needed.

Bipartisan support for emergency assistance to the state is at odds with President TrumpDonald John TrumpMark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Trump camp considering White House South Lawn for convention speech: reports Longtime Rep. Lacy Clay defeated in Missouri Democratic primary MORE's recent remarks that he’d consider pulling federal disaster assistance to California, saying the state has poor forest management.

"There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” Trump tweeted last week, threatening to withhold federal funds even as firefighters in the state grappled with the blazes. “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

Trump later eased up on his rhetoric. After Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeTrump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senior Interior official contacted former employer, violating ethics pledge: watchdog | Ag secretary orders environmental rollbacks for Forest Service | Senate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Senior Interior official contacted former employer, violating ethics pledge: watchdog MORE visited the state this week to view the Camp Fire near Paradise with Gov. Jerry Brown (D), Trump tweeted, “Just spoke to Governor Jerry Brown to let him know that we are with him, and the people of California, all the way!"

Trump is scheduled to visit California on Saturday to survey the damage.

The president has publicly opined about the way California manages its forests and water, saying it’s at the root of the state's fire troubles. State officials however, disagree, arguing that logging forests is not a substantial fix to addressing the historic fires, which seem to grow in size and strength annually. Instead, they say the cause is climate change.

Experts say one of the reasons why forest fires have become so deadly is urban sprawl. As more people move into remote, wooded areas prone to fire, more people are affected by the disasters.

Republican lawmakers, however, don’t think Trump will follow through on his funding threat.

“I think that was a mistake and I don’t think the president will actually [do that],” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Campaign Report: Even the Post Office is political now | Primary action tonight | Super PACS at war Graham leads Democratic challenger Harrison by 1 point in South Carolina: poll The Global Fragility Act provides the tools to address long-term impacts of COVID MORE (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told The Hill. “He’s frustrated by the lack of progress on underbrush and so am I. But California will get what they need.”

He added that forest management and brush cleanup is an issue he’d like to see addressed down the line.

“The president needs to put a proposal in, and send it over to us and see if we can pass it,” Graham said.

Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump signs major conservation bill into law | Senate votes to confirm Energy's No. 2 official | Trump Jr. expresses opposition to Pebble Mine project California: Dual threats of wildfire and COVID-19 underscore need for prevention Trump signs major conservation bill into law MORE (R-Mont.), a proponent of forest management — a term often used to reference logging — also said he thought California needed the funding but agreed with Trump that something must be done.

“We’ve got a disaster in California right now. We’ve got to look at funding for disasters like this but also look at reforms as it relates to how we manage the urban interfaces here with forest areas,” said Daines, another member of the Appropriations Committee.

Democratic lawmakers promised that California would eventually get the funding it needs, even if it means waiting until the party is in control of the House next year.

“We have an obligation to fund [this]. The devastation that is going on there, it breaks your heart," said Rep. Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyHelping our seniors before it's too late House approves .3 trillion spending package for 2021 House approves two child care bills aimed at pandemic MORE (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. "So we’ve got to do it and I’m sure there will be bipartisan support. I think of the lives lost, it’s terrible."

She said she couldn’t even respond to Trump’s comments threatening to pull funding for the state.

“People are dying, people have lost everything,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa Luisa DeLauroCoronavirus recession hits Social Security, Medicare, highway funding Lobbyists see wins, losses in GOP coronavirus bill Public health groups denounce new Trump move sidelining CDC MORE (D-Conn.), a fellow Appropriations Committee member. "How do you tell people that the federal government, who has the ability and the power to do something to make a difference in your lives, that you’re going to walk away?"

Rep. Marcy KapturMarcia (Marcy) Carolyn KapturEye on gavel, Wasserman Schultz proposes panel on racial inequality in spending Overnight Defense: Army now willing to rename bases named after Confederates | Dems demand answers on 'unfathomable' nuke testing discussions | Pentagon confirms death of north African al Qaeda leader Top Democrats demand answers on Trump administration's 'unfathomable' consideration of nuclear testing MORE (D-Ohio), another member of the House Appropriations Committee, said that if a supplemental bill couldn't pass by the end of the year, she had no doubts it would succeed when Democrats take over the House, when Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiNegotiators hit gas on coronavirus talks as frustration mounts Hillicon Valley: NSA warns of new security threats | Teen accused of Twitter hack pleads not guilty | Experts warn of mail-in voting misinformation Schiff, Khanna call for free masks for all Americans in coronavirus aid package MORE (D-Calif.) could be Speaker.

“I think with Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, I can’t see how it would fall off the table,” Kaptur said.

Mike Lillis and Scott Wong contributed.