Hurricane Harvey is injecting even more uncertainty into a September filled with unpredictable funding fights in Congress.
GOP leaders had tentatively laid plans to pair a popular disaster relief package with a tough vote to raise the debt ceiling and keep the government open at month’s end. But their strategy is already running into headwinds, as the damage from the storm appears far too large for Congress to wait weeks to act.
It’s not all bad news for Hill Republicans: Two White House officials said late Wednesday night that the administration is increasingly likely to kick a fight over Donald Trump’s border wall with Mexico into December — good news for GOP leadership, which is eager to avoid a shutdown. Closing down the government as it tries to provide relief to the country’s fourth largest city could also be a PR fiasco for Republicans.
Though the president could decide otherwise, one source said top Trump advisers would rather spend September focusing on an emergency package for storm victims, tax reform and other spending requests rather than on a showdown over wall funding. Trump himself has taken an active interest in Harvey recovery, calling lawmakers representing storm-battered districts and states and promising money.
Texas and Louisiana Republicans as well as Democratic leaders are lobbying White House and GOP leadership to pass a short-term boost for the Federal Emergency Management Agency now — not wait until the end of September when broader funding bills are expected to move.
FEMA currently has about $1.1 billion in its disaster relief account, but lawmakers fear the vast damage will quickly deplete the agency’s coffers. Between the thousands who have lost their homes, the stranded local businesses and a rising death toll that’s reached at least 30, those on the ground worry the storm could be one of the costliest in recent history, even exceeding that of Hurricane Katrina.
“Texas members have begun conversations with congressional leadership, FEMA and the White House on crafting an aid package in which funding would solely be directed to Harvey emergency assistance,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, echoed that sentiment and told Trump the same personally: “This is not just money that’s doled out for any purpose… This has to be targeted for disaster relief and recovery from Hurricane Harvey,” he said in a Wednesday evening statement.
During a Wednesday night call with Texas and Louisiana Republicans, GOP leaders and administration officials assured spooked House members that Congress would be ready to help their states when FEMA runs out of money. The discussion, organized by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), included Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican still recovering in the hospital from gunshot wounds; Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney; House appropriators; and FEMA and Department of Homeland Security officials.
Administration officials and Hill leaders floated the idea of attaching a short-term Harvey relief package to a debt ceiling and government funding package. That’s their preferred strategy because Congress must raise the nation’s $20 trillion borrowing limit and pass a temporary funding bill to keep the government operating by the close of September — two cringe-worthy votes for fiscal conservatives.
Republican leaders believe adding Harvey assistance would grease the votes and help push the unpopular package through Congress while also giving them cover from their far-right flank.
But time is not on their side. Lawmakers don’t return from their five-week August recess until after Labor Day. And many GOP lawmakers and aides expect Democrats and Republicans will need several weeks to negotiate a debt ceiling-government funding deal.
Some in GOP leadership are hopeful they can speed up that timetable. But if they can’t, Republicans may be forced to move a relief package apart from the must-pass fiscal bills.
It all depends on when FEMA runs out of money — a timeline, Mulvaney said on the call, officials did not yet know. Some senior Republicans believe the agency will have enough to operate until the end of the month, allowing GOP leaders and the White House time to lump everything together. Others are not so sure.
During Monday night and Tuesday morning calls with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stressed the need to pass emergency funding quickly, according to a source familiar with their conversation. Pelosi asked Kelly that Trump touch on this very topic during a White House meeting with the four top Democratic and Republican leaders scheduled for next Wednesday.
She’s not the only one eager to get the conversation started. Multiple lawmakers in recent days have been pushing the White House to begin negotiations on a spending package that may include Harvey assistance, one senior White House official said. But administration officials said they need to wait a week or so to assess the damage and needs.
One official said the White House doesn’t want to be seen as shirking the states but also doesn’t want a larded-up package that will draw criticism from the right. Administration officials, the source continued, are asking federal and local officials to assess the damage and report back.
Other ideas are also being considered to get Washington safely through September. Three GOP leadership sources said another possibility includes Congress passing two Harvey assistance bills next month: a small amount of new FEMA funds in early September and then another one in late September tied to debt ceiling legislation.
At the least, Harvey may have staved off a shutdown fight in September — the last thing they needed while also dealing with the debt ceiling.
Trump officials have gone back and forth over whether the president, who has promised to shutter federal agencies if he doesn’t get his border wall funded this fall, should make a stand in the coming weeks.
GOP leaders on the Hill, fearful that their fragile majorities would pay dearly in 2018 for any shutdown, have urged administration officials to postpone that spat for a few months. They’d prefer to merely pass a “continuing resolution” that keeps the government funded at current levels while both parties hash out a bigger spending deal likely to be approved in December.
While many in the White House were already predicting Trump would delay that fight, it looks increasingly likely that lawmakers will get their wish.
Trump, seeing an opportunity to appear presidential, appears to be enamored with the Harvey relief effort. He flew to the Lone Star State on Tuesday to talk to relief workers and, in true Trump-fashion, called Cornyn at 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning to assure him he was there to help.
John Bresnahan and Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.
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