House passes big disaster aid bill but there's political trouble ahead

2017-10-12 | McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON _ The $36.5 billion relief package the House passed Thursday, 353-69, won't be the last time Congress considers significant spending to address the natural disasters that ravaged parts of California, Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas and elsewhere.

Thursday's debate was also a preview of some serious political griping that lies ahead on both sides of the aisle, and the complaints have the potential to interfere with future efforts to get aid to areas in desperate need of assistance.

Texas and Florida officials sought additional funds for rebuilding efforts in their states that were not specifically included in this round of funding. Conservatives on Capitol Hill issued new calls for spending cuts to help pay for the assistance as well as more transparency about how the money is spent. And Democrats had their own set of grievances, calling for more money faster.

Thursday's package, which the Senate could take up when it returns next week, includes money for Federal Emergency Management Agency's nearly empty Disaster Relief Fund and for the financially struggling National Flood Insurance Program. It also provided $576.5 million to fight wildfires in California and other western states.

It did not include the $18.7 billion and $27 billion requests made by Texas and Florida lawmakers, respectively, for rebuilding efforts from hurricane damage.

About $15 billion in the bill could go toward Texas, including $11 billion for flood insurance claims and about $4 billion for the FEMA disaster relief fund, according to the office of Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., urged patience during the bill's floor debate, reminding lawmakers this was just the second of many funding bills Congress will take up for an array of natural disasters in recent months. The White House has suggested there could be at least two more bills.

"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," Frelinghuysen said of the current measure.

But conservatives argued that the longer Congress waits, the less excuse it has for not finding spending offsets.

"The emergency relief is one thing," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, who voted no along with 68 other Republicans. "(For) the rebuilding and what we do beyond that ... offsets become much more critical."

Last week three Texas Republicans declined to join a letter requesting additional fund for their state, citing a lack of clarity about where the money is going.

Democrats, who have long been in favor of advancing emergency disaster relief spending bills without corresponding spending cuts to other programs, had a different complaint: More money is needed, and fast.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, a senior appropriations committee Democrat, said during the House floor debate that the bill "leaves much to be desired," and her constituents "should not have to wait ... for the services they so desperately need."

The bill did not include funding for Small Business Administration loans for individuals whose businesses were damaged by the storms or money to help the state recoup major agricultural losses, she said.

Some Texas lawmakers also were not pleased.

"I am here to fight for those who have been impacted by Hurricane Harvey," Houston Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said in an impassioned speech on the House floor. "The funding that we asked for is not in here."

That put Lee, a Democrat, on the same side as her state's Republican governor, Greg Abbott, who criticized lawmakers in Washington for not including his state's request. Abbott also attacked his own delegation, saying the lack of Texas-specific funds meant they had "let themselves be rolled by the House of Representatives."

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, said the bill would not be able to help the territory's 5,000 residents at risk of starvation or the 85 percent of the population still without electricity.

"Where the president is failing to lead, Congress must act, and act now," she said. "The legislation we are debating is far from sufficient. It is not enough."

Early morning tweets from President Donald Trump suggesting he might end relief efforts in Puerto Rico _ where most residents are still without electricity _ incensed lawmakers. On several occasions, House Democrats were forcibly reminded during the debate not to direct their remarks towards Trump directly.

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