Recovery

House Expected to Vote on $81B Disaster Aid Package Today

The disaster aid bill nearly doubles the $44 billion request made by the White House last month.

by Katie Leslie, The Dallas Morning News / December 21, 2017

(TNS) - The House is expected to vote Thursday on an $81 billion disaster aid package, a measure that would be the largest single infusion of federal relief dollars yet for areas ravaged by hurricanes and wildfires this year.

The House Rules Committee convened an early-morning meeting Thursday to clear the way for a vote on disaster aid and a must-pass spending bill to avert a government shutdown. Republicans unveiled overnight a new, stripped-down spending bill that would fund the government through Jan. 19 and delay battles over the budget and immigration into next month.

“It should pass and it should be bipartisan,” Bryan Rep. Bill Flores, a Republican, said of the aid measure Wednesday.

It faces a less certain path in the Senate, however, where lawmakers could punt the issue to January. The Senate is expected, however, to swiftly approve the stopgap spending bill as current funding expires later this week.

The disaster aid bill nearly doubles the $44 billion request made by the White House last month —a measure that Gov. Greg Abbott and many Texas lawmakers slammed as “inadequate.”

If the $81 billion proposal is approved, it would bring the total dedicated to hurricane and fire-ravaged communities this year to more than $130 billion.

The emergency aid would provide $26 billion for community development block grants, which would help Texas, Florida and island territories rebuild, along with Western states recovering from wildfires. It would also direct almost $28 billion to the government’s chief disaster aid account — the Federal Emergency Management Agency  — $4 billion of which could be used to help cash-strapped governments such as Puerto Rico’s stay afloat.

More than $12 billion would go to the Army Corps of Engineers, primarily to repair structures damaged by natural disasters. There's also money for schools, small business loans and farmers whose crops were destroyed by storms.

On Wednesday, Texas Sen. John Cornyn said he advised his House counterparts to “please pass something” so that the Senate can quickly take it up. “There’s a good chance we can improve it and send it back to the House and get it done,” he told The Dallas Morning News.

The concern is that “the longer we have to wait, No. 1, our needs are not going to be met and No. 2, the opportunities to get a supplemental passed are going to sort of fade away as we get busy doing other things,” he said.

Still, it’s unclear whether the Senate would immediately consider the disaster aid bill before lawmakers leave for the holidays. The Senate would likely add to the measure and pass it next year, over the objections of lawmakers from Texas and Florida.

“We’re relying on John Cornyn and Ted Cruz,” said Friendswood Republican Rep. Randy Weber, who wants to see the funds approved this month.

The measure would be the third major relief package approved by Congress in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and wildfires this year.

On Wednesday, Weber was among the Texans concerned that — despite the size of the $81 billion request — the state wouldn’t see enough direct federal aid to help rebuild from the August storm.

It is unclear, however, what Texas would see in federal assistance as the majority of money will be distributed through a competitive grant process.

“We’re very concerned. When you talk about a geographical area, the number of people with financial impact, Texas was the hardest hit,” Weber said.

“We’d make the argument that Texas should get at least the attention that Katrina got, or Sandy got,” he continued, referring to federal funds approved in the wake of the storms that rocked coastal states and the Northeast.

Cornyn said both he and Abbott are also “concerned about the makeup” of the bill because “some of it will not be accessible to Texas and some of it is more designed for Puerto Rico.”

Abbott has asked Washington to approve a more than $60 billion wishlist in Texas Harvey aid, though much of Abbott’s 300-page request entailed ambitious long-term flood control projects, instead of just restoring what was damaged by Hurricane Harvey.

Last month, he blasted the White House’s $44 billion request last month as "completely inadequate" and said it "does not live up" to what President Donald Trump has pledged in recovery aid.

In a statement on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Abbott said the $81 billion “top line number is significant but the overall bill is still a work in progress. The governor will continue to work with the Texas delegation to identify strategies and address the needs of Texans."

Some conservatives are upset with the price tag of the $81 billion plan, as it is not offset with cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Meanwhile, Democrats secured more help for Puerto Rico on Wednesday, according to Politico, as House Republicans need their support in the face of conservative opposition.

Houston Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee is among the Democrats who say the disaster aid bill should be taken up before lawmakers leave this week.

“While the passage of time since these natural disasters occurred may make it difficult for some to remember the awful destruction left in their wake, the truth is that millions of Americans in the affected areas are still struggling in the aftermath,” she said in a prepared statement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

———

©2017 The Dallas Morning News

Visit The Dallas Morning News at www.dallasnews.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.