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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 FeinsteinBottom line Trump vetoes bipartisan driftnet fishing bill Dumping Abraham Lincoln? A word of advice to the 'cancel culture' 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 HuffmanTrust between lawmakers reaches all-time low after Capitol riots OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Capitol in Chaos | Trump's Arctic refuge drilling sale earns just fraction of GOP prediction | EPA finds fuel efficiency dropped, pollution spiked for 2019 vehicles Trump's sale of Arctic refuge drilling rights earns just a fraction of GOP prediction 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 TrumpFacebook temporarily bans ads for weapons accessories following Capitol riots Sasse, in fiery op-ed, says QAnon is destroying GOP Section 230 worked after the insurrection, but not before: How to regulate social media 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 ZinkeOvernight Energy: Interior finalizes plan to open 80 percent of Alaska petroleum reserve to drilling | Justice Department lawyers acknowledge presidential transition in court filing | Trump admin pushes for permits for men who inspired Bundy standoff Trump administration pushes for grazing permits for men who inspired Bundy standoff Interior secretary tests positive for COVID-19 after two days of meetings with officials: report 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 GrahamImpeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP An attack on America that's divided Congress — and a nation The Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history 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 DainesMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time McConnell says he's undecided on whether to vote to convict Trump Member of Senate GOP leadership: Impeaching Trump 'not going to happen' 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 LoweyTrump seeks to freeze .4 billion of programs in final week of presidency This week: Trump's grip on Hill allies faces test Trump signs .3T relief, spending package 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 DeLauroTim Ryan, Rosa DeLauro giving free coffee and donuts to National Guard stationed at Capitol Trump seeks to freeze .4 billion of programs in final week of presidency House Democrats request cots for National Guard troops stationed in Capitol 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 KapturHouse Democrats pick DeLauro to lead Appropriations panel DeLauro wins Steering Committee vote for Appropriations chair DeLauro racks up labor endorsements for Appropriations gavel 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 PelosiMissouri woman seen with Pelosi sign charged in connection with Capitol riots Boebert communications director resigns amid Capitol riot: report Revising the pardon power — let the Speaker and Congress have voices 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.