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.

ADVERTISEMENT

“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 FrelinghuysenThe 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority Top House GOP appropriations staffer moves to lobbying shop Individuals with significant disabilities need hope and action 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.”

ADVERTISEMENT

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 FeinsteinThis week: Democrats, White House set for infrastructure, budget talks Senate confirms Rosen for No. 2 spot at DOJ Senate confirms controversial 9th Circuit pick without blue slips 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: 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.), 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 TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure 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 ZinkeInterior's border surge puts more officers in unfamiliar role Not 'if' but 'when' is the next Deepwater Horizon spill? Former Wyoming GOP lawmaker mulling Senate bid to replace Enzi 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 GrahamTensions swirl around Iran as administration to brief Congress Press: Justin Amash breaks ranks with party Overnight Defense: Iran tensions swirl as officials prepare to brief Congress | Trump threatens war would be 'end of Iran' | Graham tells Trump to 'stand firm' | Budget talks begin 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 DainesBullock: Running for Senate 'never really got me excited' Liberian immigrant among Dems planning challenges to GOP senator in Montana Export-Import Bank back to full strength after Senate confirmations 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 LoweyDems advance bill defying Trump State Department cuts Overnight Defense: Trump says no plans to send 120K troops to counter Iran | Pentagon, coalition general at odds over Iranian threat | Spending bill includes M to study Space Force Defense spending bill would limit Pentagon's ability to shift money after border wall transfers 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 DeLauroWatchdog: DeVos used personal emails for work in 'limited' cases Press: Who will be the first conservative to take on Trump? A good week for the nation's family planning program 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 KapturDems walk Trump trade tightrope Democrats advance spending bills boosting EPA, defying Trump House Dems propose billions in extra funding for environmental programs that Trump sought to cut 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 Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure 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.