House ap­proves $36.5 bil­lion hur­ri­cane and wild­fire aid

Some Repub­li­cans balk at funds’ ef­fect on fed­eral deficit.

The Palm Beach Post - - BACK OF THE FRONT - By Ken Thomas and Andrew Tay­lor

WASH­ING­TON — The House, dis­miss­ing a smat­ter­ing of con­cern for the ris­ing cost, ap­proved a $36.5 bil­lion aid pack­age on Thurs­day that would pro­vide hur­ri­cane and wild­fire re­lief fund­ing while bail­ing out the fi­nan­cially trou­bled Na­tional Flood In­sur­ance Pro­gram.

The aid pack­age would also help Puerto Rico’s fi­nan­cially be­lea­guered gov­ern­ment avoid run­ning out of cash in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Maria. Con­di­tions there re­main dire, with most of the is­land still with­out power three weeks af­ter the storm hit.

The dis­as­ter pack­age, now await­ing con­sid­er­a­tion in the Se­nate, would be the sec­ond in­stall­ment of aid money that Congress has ap­proved in re­sponse to this year’s hur­ri­canes, af­ter a $15.3 bil­lion re­lief mea­sure in Septem­ber. With the tab now more than $50 bil­lion, law­mak­ers warn that much more money will still be needed. Law­mak­ers from Texas and Florida have al­ready out­lined ex­pan­sive re­quests, adding up to tens of bil­lions of dol­lars in to­tal. And Stacey Plas­kett, the Demo­cratic U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands del­e­gate to the House, com­plained that the pack­age lacked aid to her dev­as­tated ter­ri­tory.

“I know peo­ple are con­cerned that not every state’s need is met, but this is, I think, a good step in the right di­rec­tion,” said Rep. Rod­ney Frel­inghuy­sen, R-N.J., chair­man of the House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee, urg­ing his col­leagues to vote for the bill, “so we can get this money out the door as quickly as pos­si­ble.”

The White House had sub­mit­ted a re­quest to Congress last week for a new dis­as­ter re­lief pack­age top­ping $29 bil­lion. But hours be­fore the House vote Thurs­day, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump of­fered a warn­ing on Twit­ter: “We can­not keep FEMA, the Mil­i­tary & the First Re­spon­ders, who have been amaz­ing (un­der the most dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances) in P.R. for­ever!”

The drum­beat of re­quests for dis­as­ter re­lief is cre­at­ing new fi­nan­cial de­mands for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, which al­ready spends far more money than it takes in. The Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice es­ti­mated last week that the deficit for the 2017 fis­cal year, which ended Sept. 30, was $668 bil­lion, an in­crease of $82 bil­lion from the pre­vi­ous year.

As that money flows, Repub­li­cans are lay­ing the ground­work for a tax bill that could add as much as $1.5 tril­lion to the deficit over a decade. The Se­nate is set to vote next week on a bud­get blue­print that would pro­tect a tax cut of that mag­ni­tude from a fil­i­buster and al­low it to pass with Repub­li­can votes only.

While con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans have in the past de­manded spend­ing cuts to go in tan­dem with dis­as­ter re­lief, this time around, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and con­gres­sional lead­ers have shown an ea­ger­ness to pro­vide aid with­out par­ing spend­ing in other ar­eas. Her­itage Ac­tion for Amer­ica, the po­lit­i­cal arm of the con­ser­va­tive Her­itage Foun­da­tion, called on House Repub­li­cans to vote down the mea­sure, la­bel­ing the flood in­sur­ance bailout as “ir­re­spon­si­ble.”

“That’s the ‘eat your spinach’ part,” said Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., who made clear that he wished law­mak­ers would, in fact, eat their spinach.

Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., chair­man of the con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can Study Com­mit­tee, ex­pressed frus­tra­tion with the lack of dis­cus­sion about find­ing off­set­ting spend­ing cuts.

“Repub­li­cans con­trol the White House and Congress, and we can­not ig­nore or fur­ther en­able our debt cri­sis,” he wrote in a let­ter this week, tak­ing is­sue with a dis­as­ter aid pack­age that he sug­gested was be­ing rushed through the House.

In an ap­par­ent dis­play of how Repub­li­cans’ pri­or­i­ties seem to have changed, Walker quoted Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence from his days as a con­gress­man. “Congress must en­sure that a catas­tro­phe of na­ture does not be­come a catas­tro­phe of debt for our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren,” Pence warned af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in 2005.

Even Rep. Mark Mead­ows, R-N.C., chair­man of the hard­line House Free­dom Cau­cus, which has been a dis­rup­tive force in the past, was re­signed to the dis­as­ter aid bill sail­ing through the House, though he bris­tled at the bailout of the flood in­sur­ance pro­gram.

Mead­ows said deal­ing with deficits re­mained an is­sue for law­mak­ers to ad­dress, “but ob­vi­ously it pales in com­par­i­son to get­ting re­lief to Puerto Rico and Florida.”

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