More Har­vey aid on the way

House ap­proves dis­as­ter pack­age that helps soothe Abbott’s con­cerns

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Diaz

WASH­ING­TON — The U.S. House signed off on cru­cial dis­as­ter re­lief Thurs­day for peo­ple hit by storms and fires from Puerto Rico to Cal­i­for­nia, over­com­ing con­cerns from Gov. Greg Abbott that Congress had not ear­marked money specif­i­cally for the vic­tims of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey in Texas.

Law­mak­ers voted 35369 to pro­vide $36.5 bil­lion in aid for vic­tims of hur­ri­canes Har­vey, Irma, Maria and Nate, and for those fight­ing wild­fires across Cal­i­for­nia and other Western states. The Se­nate is ex­pected to act next week.

All of the “no” votes — in­clud­ing six from Texas — were cast by Repub­li­cans, many of whom op­posed what they called a “bailout” of the na­tion’s bank­rupt Na­tional Flood In­sur­ance Pro­gram.

Con­gres­sional lead­ers promised more aid for Texas in the com­ing weeks.

Al­though Har­vey vic­tims were in­cluded in the new aid pack­age, it does not in­clude some $18.7 bil­lion that Abbott and nearly the en­tire Texas con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion had sought specif­i­cally for the

Gulf Coast vic­tims of the storm. Much of that would have been tar­geted for the Hous­ton area.

The vote came amid Demo­cratic crit­i­cism of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who sug­gested on Twit­ter early Thurs­day that the gov­ern­ment’s com­mit­ment to Puerto Rico could end.

“We can­not keep FEMA, the Mil­i­tary & the First Re­spon­ders, who have been amaz­ing (un­der the most dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances) in P.R. for­ever!” Trump tweeted.

Abbott raised con­cerns about the aid pack­age Wed­nes­day, sug­gest­ing the 36-mem­ber Texas con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion was get­ting “rolled” on the re­quested Har­vey aid pack­age.

The in­ter­ven­tion of Repub­li­can House Speaker Paul Ryan, who called the gover­nor amid a Wed­nes­day night scram­ble, soothed nerves that had been rat­tled on the eve of the vote.

Af­ter a late night meet­ing with con­gres­sional lead­ers, mem­bers of the Texas del­e­ga­tion said they un­der­stood that up to $15 bil­lion of the over­all emer­gency spend­ing would be slated for Texas, which suf­fered the first in a string of nat­u­ral dis­as­ters start­ing in Au­gust. That in­cludes $11 bil­lion for an­tic­i­pated flood in­sur­ance claims, and an es­ti­mated $4 bil­lion in aid re­quests from Tex­ans to the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency dis­as­ter re­lief fund, which can be used to cover di­rect hous­ing as­sis­tance, home re­pairs, de­bris re­moval and pub­lic as­sis­tance grants.

“Texas was hit first and hard­est,” said Hous­ton Repub­li­can John Cul­ber­son, a mem­ber of the House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee. “They’re due to be paid first.”

Thurs­day morn­ing, hours be­fore the House vote, Abbott’s spokesman Matt Hirsch is­sued a state­ment step­ping back from the gover­nor’s crit­i­cism the night be­fore:

“Gover­nor Abbott was as­sured by House lead­er­ship that as soon as Novem­ber, Texas will get the dis­as­ter as­sis­tance fund­ing we’re re­quest­ing for Army Corps of En­gi­neer projects, Com­mu­nity Devel­op­ment Block Grants, and fund­ing for dredg­ing Texas ports, ex­pand­ing bay­ous and crit­i­cal flood mit­i­ga­tion projects, among other pri­or­i­ties.”

Congress put on no­tice

Hirsch also put Congress and Texas law­mak­ers in Wash­ing­ton on no­tice: “The gover­nor will hold House lead­er­ship to that prom­ise on be­half of Tex­ans whose lives were dev­as­tated by Hur­ri­cane Har­vey. In the mean­time, the gover­nor and the Texas del­e­ga­tion will con­tinue work­ing to­gether as a team to help Tex­ans re­cover and re­build.”

Hous­ton-area Repub­li­can Michael McCaul, chair­man of the House Home­land Se­cu­rity Com­mit­tee, said Thurs­day that the Texas del­e­ga­tion also re­ceived as­sur­ances from con­gres­sional lead­er­ship that an­other fund­ing mea­sure for Har­vey vic­tims would come within 30 days, not in De­cem­ber as ini­tially en­vi­sioned.

McCaul said Abbott — who said Texas law­mak­ers in Wash­ing­ton needed to get a “stiff spine” the day be­fore — sup­ported both Thurs­day’s vote and the plan for more fund­ing.

“He’s changed mes­sag­ing quite dra­mat­i­cally since last night,” McCaul said of Abbott.

“At the end of the day it was a good process to go through with our del­e­ga­tion, re­ally flag­ging this to our lead­er­ship that you need to take care of Texas,” McCaul said.

Back­ers of the bill ar­gued that the mea­sure was nec­es­sary to re­plen­ish FEMA’s nearly de­pleted cof­fers and help the debt-rid­den Na­tional Flood In­sur­ance Pro­gram, which is help­ing dis­as­ter vic­tims in Texas and across the na­tion.

“The gover­nor un­der­stood that this was es­sen­tial to keep the flow of fund­ing con­stant,” Cul­ber­son said.

The bill in­cludes $18.67 bil­lion for FEMA’s dis­as­ter re­lief fund, nearly $5 bil­lion of which could be used to sub­si­dize di­rect loans to Puerto Rico.

An­other $16 bil­lion is for the Na­tional Flood In­sur­ance Pro­gram, which is nearly $30 bil­lion in debt.

The six Texas Repub­li­cans vot­ing against the aid pack­age were Joe Bar­ton of Ar­ling­ton, Louie Gohmert of Tyler, Jeb Hen­sar­ling of Dal­las, Kenny Marchant of Cop­pell, John Rat­cliffe of Heath and Roger Wil­liams of Austin.

Bar­ton, who co-chairs the con­gres­sional Har­vey task force, has been an out­spo­ken critic of the trou­bled flood in­sur­ance pro­gram, along with Hen­sar­ling and Wil­liams.

“The NFIP ur­gently needs an over­haul,” Wil­liams said. “Un­til the House passes leg­is­la­tion that re­forms this frac­tured pro­gram, I can­not sup­port a $16 bil­lion bailout that fur­ther kicks this prob­lem to the fu­ture.”

In­sur­ance pro­gram woes

The flood in­sur­ance pro­gram is ex­pected to run out of money within weeks, mean­ing Texas claims would not be paid. Back­ers of the aid pack­age said FEMA fund­ing soon would be ex­hausted also, due to the fasterthan-ex­pected draw-downs for Hur­ri­canes Irma in Florida and Maria in Puerto Rico and the Vir­gin Is­lands.

Floor de­bate on the aid pack­age was marked by spe­cial pleas for aid from rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Puerto Rico and the Vir­gin Is­lands.

Some echoed crit­i­cism of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­cov­ery ef­forts in Puerto Rico, a U.S. ter­ri­tory where some po­lit­i­cal lead­ers have been ex­chang­ing barbs with Trump.

Hous­ton Demo­crat Sheila Jack­son Lee, cit­ing Trump’s tweet about end­ing aid to Puerto Rico, ac­cused him of turn­ing his back on the is­land, much of which is still with­out elec­tric­ity and clean wa­ter.

“Mr. Pres­i­dent, how can you aban­don the Amer­i­can peo­ple?” she said in a floor speech. “I am here to fight for those who have been im­pacted by Hur­ri­cane Har­vey . ... We will fight, but I will not turn my back on Puerto Rico and the Vir­gin Is­lands.”

The Texas al­lo­ca­tions come on top of $15 bil­lion Congress ap­proved for Har­vey re­lief ef­forts in Septem­ber. State of­fi­cials have said the to­tal tab from the storm could reach $100 bil­lion or more.

“Sadly, the dam­age far ex­ceeds the money we’ve cur­rently funded,” said U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, a Repub­li­can whose district runs from Friendswood to Galve­ston.

U.S. Rep. Brian Babin of Woodville, whose Gulf Coast district was hit hard, called it a “sec­ond in­stall­ment in crit­i­cal re­lief for the peo­ple of Texas.”

Other Hous­ton-area law­mak­ers said they were as­sured that Congress will tar­get more money at the area soon.

“Within the last 24 hours, House lead­er­ship has com­mit­ted to Gover­nor Abbott and to the Texas del­e­ga­tion that it will bring up a third, tar­geted re­lief pack­age in the com­ing weeks,” said Hum­ble Repub­li­can Ted Poe.

“I will hold my col­leagues in the House to their com­mit­ment.”

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