Politics & Government

Harvey aid package gets tripped up in debt-ceiling politics

Volunteers Valeria and Julia Abreu move a damaged piece of furniture from a family's home to a debris pile in the Barrington subdivision of Kingwood, Texas.
Volunteers Valeria and Julia Abreu move a damaged piece of furniture from a family's home to a debris pile in the Barrington subdivision of Kingwood, Texas. AP

Plans for billions of dollars to flow to hurricane-ravaged Texas have already hit a snag in Washington, barely a half a day after Congress returned from a five week recess Tuesday.

The House is expected to vote Wednesday on the first installment of emergency funding for areas hit by Hurricane Harvey, a $7.85 billion package going largely to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s quickly dwindling Disaster Relief Fund.

In the Senate, though, leaders are expected to attach the plan to the debt ceiling increase. That decision surprised some returning House members Tuesday, who say it could upset an otherwise unusual moment of unity to help Houston.

Senate leaders insisted both moves are immediately necessary for the recovery effort, since an increase in the debt ceiling is needed by the end of the month.

“FEMA is literally running out of funds at the end of this week, unless we act with dispatch to (authorize the funds) which the House will do tomorrow, and unless we raise the debt ceiling,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

The emergency aid is a small fraction of what the federal government is likely to eventually spend on a recovery effort that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott predicted could cost as much as $150 billion. Until Tuesday night, the $7.85 billion package looked likely to move quickly and without much debate, even though it didn’t include the corresponding spending cuts conservatives often demand for this type of spending.

But the Trump administration suggested combining the debt ceiling and emergency funding, and Senate leaders were sympathetic. Conservatives were not interested in tying the two together.

Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee, said members were surprised by the idea to attach the aid to the debt ceiling.

“For many of us that are arriving today, coming from our different homes throughout the country, this is a little unsettling and even more frustrating,” Walker said on Fox News Tuesday.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said earlier Tuesday that the Harvey funding should not be tied to anything else.

David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth, took his complaints further, calling the plan “abhorrent.”

He said that “disasters like Harvey may be unpredictable, but we know with 100 percent certainty that they will occur. Congress needs to stop using the ‘emergency’ label as an excuse for politicians to spend money without paying for it."

The bigger debates could be even more volatile. This week’s vote was meant to offer lawmakers a chance to get funding to Texas quickly, without fighting over how to pay for the aid.

Even conservatives who voted against aid to areas hit hard by 2012’s Superstorm Sandy appeared ready to support the Harvey spending bill in the House. FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund had about $3.5 billion when the Harvey hit, and is now down to about $1 billion. When Sandy hit the Northeast, the fund had the money to fund recovery for weeks before Congress acted on an emergency funding bill.

Contact: Andrea Dr4usch at adrusch@mcclatchydc.com