House approves $36.5 billion hurricane and wildfire aid
Some Republicans balk at funds’ effect on federal deficit.
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.”