Congressional Republicans may send Hurricane Harvey aid in multiple installments rather than one large lump sum as Congress did in response to Hurricane Sandy. And it could take months for Congress to deliver, according to Republican lawmakers.
As the storm continues to ravage the Texas coast, talks are underway in Congress on delivering money to help Houston and other areas around the Gulf Coast recover from the devastating storm. But Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of GOP leadership and a top appropriator, said it may make more sense to deliver the money as needed, rather than in a catch-all bill like the $50 billion Sandy measure.
Blunt cited Congress’ handling of the tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, in 2011 as a far preferable solution than the approach to Sandy, which included millions for other disasters and money aimed at mitigating future damage that many Republicans viewed as wasteful. Blunt was among the 36 Senate Republicans that opposed the Sandy bill, including both Texas GOP senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. A majority of House Republicans also opposed the bill.
“My view has always been that multiple bills are fine, but you’re better off to pass multiple bills knowing what the costs are [rather] than some number that no one can really justify. Years later, we are still trying to figure out how to spend all this Sandy money,” Blunt told reporters in the Capitol Tuesday. “With the Joplin tornado, I think we had four different bills over a period of time as we knew what the costs were. That would be my preference.” Of course, the recovery needed for Joplin was significantly dwarfed by the relief required for the East Coast.
It will take weeks for officials to tally the damage from Harvey. And it could take longer still for Congress to consider a disaster relief bill, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), another top appropriator, said in a phone interview.
Republicans said they were confident they had enough money in federal coffers to respond to the storm in the near future. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had $2.8 billion in the Disaster Relief Fund, with $1.3 billion of that able to be used for major disasters like Hurricane Harvey and another $1.5 billion earmarked for things like fire mitigation grants.
Political and public pressure could force lawmakers to act quickly. But Cole said the federal government probably has enough cash for rescue operations for the next few weeks, making it unnecessary for lawmakers to squeeze a multibillion-dollar aid package into the already-packed September.
“I don’t expect to see that in September,” Cole said. “Until the water comes down, it’s a massive job looking at the infrastructure. … I expect it will take them some time, and I would advise them not to rush that.”
Cole pointed to the fact that Congress waited two months to vote on aid packages following Hurricane Sandy, which hit in October 2012. Congress did vote to allow FEMA to borrow billions for flood damage soon after, but it wasn’t until January 2013 that Congress delivered the bulk of the aid after significant political controversy.
“It took New York and New Jersey and the affected states in Sandy literally 70 to 80 days to do their own assessments,” Cole said. “By the time we voted on Sandy, we had a really good idea of what was needed.”
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, however, Congress sent $10.4 billion in aid within four days of landfall. A week later, it approved an additional $51.8 billion.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, whose Texas district covers Houston, called Tuesday for Congress to approve as much as $150 billion in aid for Harvey — even more han the $120 billion that went to states impacted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey said his committee will take “quick action” once an official request for money is made by the Trump administration. His Senate counterpart, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, “is prepared to respond to any requests for supplemental appropriations for Hurricane Harvey response and recovery,” a spokesman said.
If Congress chooses to act quickly, there are several opportunities for Congress to deliver Harvey money in September by attaching it to other must-pass legislation rather than devising a new standalone emergency spending bill. Government funding runs out on Sept. 30 and the debt ceiling must be raised by early October. Other programs also are expiring next month, including the federal flood insurance program, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and authority for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Blunt said that the Harvey disaster relief debate won’t center on “whether to do it, but exactly how to do it.”
“There are a number of spending vehicles out there and I suspect this will be on one of them, either the [spending bill] or the debt limit or some other bill,” Blunt said of the first tranche of emergency spending for Harvey. “It could be on all of the above combined.”
Republicans are already tangling with each other over past disaster relief efforts.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Rep. Peter King of New York dinged GOP members of the Texas delegation on Monday for voting against Sandy aid, and said they would support Harvey recovery efforts, nonetheless.
“There’s time for political sniping later,” Cruz told MSNBC on Monday. “Hurricane relief and disaster relief has been a vital federal role for a long, long time and it should continue. The problem with that particular bill is it became a $50 billion that was filled with unrelated pork.”
Cole insisted Republicans are not likely to encounter the same resistance as they did with Hurricane Sandy aid, which badly divided Republicans.
“Most of the people who couldn’t bring themselves to vote during the Sandy thing, now the shoe’s on the other foot,” Cole said, adding that those lawmakers “are going to have to eat a little crow.”
Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this report.
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