The House on Wednesday moved swiftly toward approving $7.9 billion in Harvey disaster relief as Republicans and Democrats united, if only for a moment, to proclaim Congress’ support for victims of the storm while a new hurricane bore down on Florida.
“Nothing can capture how big and wide this devastation is,” Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters ahead of an expected resounding vote.
But politics quickly intruded as Democratic leaders insisted they would back the measure in the Senate only if it were linked to a short-term increase in the nation’s borrowing limit, not the longer-term hike that Republicans and the Trump administration want.
Republican leaders want to rush Harvey aid to Texas with Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster accounts now down to $1 billion or less, and a much more powerful hurricane, Irma, crashing into the Caribbean.
“My friends and neighbors’ homes were completely flattened by Hurricane Harvey’s winds. Businesses were destroyed,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas. “FEMA will be out of money in just two or three days if we don’t pass this.”
The relief measure was heading for a resounding vote, even as some Democrats from the New York delegation reminded Texas Republicans that they opposed aid for those harmed by Superstorm Sandy five years ago.
“What you did to us during Superstorm Sandy should not stand, should not be done to any other people, anyplace in the country,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. “We’re one country, we’re Americans. We need to help those who need help.”
Determined to avoid an economy-shattering default, the GOP leaders want to link a long-term increase in the debt limit — until 2019 — to the Harvey aid, but that plan faces opposition from conservatives and thus will need Democratic votes.
The announcement by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York is aimed at retaining Democratic influence and trying to ensure the Republican-controlled Congress addresses health care and immigration as the hectic fall agenda kicks off.
“Given Republican difficulty in finding the votes for their plan, we believe this proposal offers a bipartisan path forward to ensure prompt delivery of Harvey aid as well as avoiding a default, while both sides work together to address government funding, DREAMERS, and health care,” Pelosi and Schumer wrote.
Democratic votes are needed to quickly pass a debt limit increase, even though Republicans control Congress. Many Republicans simply won’t vote to increase the limit without cuts elsewhere in government spending.
Asked about the three-month proposal, Ryan told reporters, “I think that’s a ridiculous idea … ridiculous idea that they want to play politics with the debt ceiling.”
The first installment in Harvey aid is to handle the immediate emergency needs and replenish reserves in advance of Irma. Far more money will be needed once more complete estimates are in this fall, and Harvey could end up exceeding the $110 billion government cost of Hurricane Katrina.
The move by Pelosi and Schumer is aimed at winning assurances that minority party Democrats will be treated fairly as Congress advances through its daunting to-do list, which includes extending a popular children’s health program, federal flood insurance, and, perhaps, a budget that would ease tight limits on Pentagon and domestic spending.
GOP leaders have signaled that they want to use the urgent Harvey aid bill to solve perhaps the most vexing issue facing Congress this month: Increasing the U.S. debt limit to make sure the government can borrow freely again to cover its bills, including Harvey aid.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said again Wednesday that increased Harvey costs show the importance of acting swiftly to increase the government’s debt cap to make sure there’s enough borrowed cash to pay out the surge in disaster aid.
“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who conceded that conservatives were getting outmaneuvered.
“I think at this point there are bigger issues that we have to focus on,” Meadows said.
“I have opposed a debt ceiling increase every time it has come up for a vote,” said Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas. “I am heavily opposed to lumping these two separate issues together.”
Analysts at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank, say Harvey aid wouldn’t cause a cash crunch for weeks.
“We’re dealing with all these things at this point in time anyway,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley of New York. “Democrats have said we’re for a clean debt ceiling and we’re also for making sure the people from Texas, Louisiana, and elsewhere who’ve been severely damaged by these storms — with one more on the way as well — that their needs need to be addressed as well.”