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 FrelinghuysenTop House GOP appropriations staffer moves to lobbying shop Individuals with significant disabilities need hope and action Exiting lawmakers jockey for K Street perch 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 FeinsteinFeinstein says she thinks Biden will run after meeting with him Trump judicial nominee Neomi Rao seeks to clarify past remarks on date rape Bottom Line 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: Court rules for Trump in environmental case over border wall | House bill would stop Alaska refuge drilling | Ads target Dems over Green New Deal Lawmakers introduce bill to ban drilling in Alaska wildlife refuge Overnight Energy: EPA enforcement numbers at historic low | Dems push resolution to back Paris climate agreement | Top lawmaker demands Interior nominee's schedules 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 TrumpMcCabe says he was fired because he 'opened a case against' Trump McCabe: Trump said 'I don't care, I believe Putin' when confronted with US intel on North Korea McCabe: Trump talked to me about his election victory during 'bizarre' job interview 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: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House Zinke, Lewandowski join Trump veterans’ lobbying firm Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? 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 GrahamGraham: More urgent for kids in Kentucky to have secure border than new school 
 White House, GOP defend Trump emergency declaration Limbaugh calls 25th Amendment discussions 'silent coup' 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 DainesMontana governor visiting Iowa amid talk of possible 2020 bid Will Senate GOP try to pass a budget this year? Overnight Health Care: Dem chair plans hearing on Medicare for all | Senate GOP talks drug prices with Trump health chief | PhRMA CEO hopeful Trump reverses course on controversial pricing proposal 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 LoweyOn The Money: Trump declares emergency at border | Braces for legal fight | Move divides GOP | Trump signs border deal to avoid shutdown | Winners, losers from spending fight | US, China trade talks to resume next week How the border deal came together Winners and losers in the border security deal 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 DeLauroPush for paid family leave heats up ahead of 2020 Gillibrand offers to 'sit down' with Trump to discuss family leave Key lawmaker says moment is now for legislation benefiting women 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 KapturOvernight Energy: Wheeler weathers climate criticism at confirmation hearing | Dems want Interior to stop drilling work during shutdown | 2018 was hottest year for oceans House Dems call on leadership to prioritize opioid epidemic Lawmakers shrug off shutdown drama 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 national emergency will haunt Republicans come election season On unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win 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.