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 United States Virgin Islands delegate to the House, complained that the package lacked aid to her devastated territory.
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“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 Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, Republican of New Jersey and 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 on Thursday, President Trump offered a warning on Twitter:
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 back 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 Representative Dave Brat, Republican of Virginia, who made clear that he wished lawmakers would, in fact, eat their spinach.
Representative Mark Walker, Republican of North Carolina and the 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 to colleagues 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. Pence warned after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Even Representative Mark Meadows, Republican of North Carolina and chairman of the hard-line 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.
Mr. 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.”
The House bill would provide more funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been burning through money since the hurricanes, Harvey, Irma and Maria.
“That pipeline is getting empty quick, so we really need to move now to get that pipeline replenished,” said Representative Kevin Brady, Republican of Texas, adding that he expected a “bigger, more long-term recovery package” once the needs of Texas and other places become clear.
The bill would provide $577 million to respond to wildfires, and it would also make $4.9 billion in loans available to Puerto Rico so that its government does not run out of money. In a recent letter to congressional leaders, Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo A. Rosselló, warned of facing “unsustainable cash shortfalls,” saying that the island’s economy had “ground to a near standstill.”
“In addition to the immediate humanitarian crisis, Puerto Rico is on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future,” he wrote.
Even before Hurricane Maria devastated the island, Puerto Rico was running out of money and had defaulted on most of its $74 billion public debt. Congress enacted a special bankruptcy-like law, called Promesa, to give it court protection from its creditors while carrying out a vast and contentious restructuring. A Trump administration official said the loans made available by the House bill could not be used to pay interest or principal on Puerto Rico’s debt.
The aid package would also provide a reprieve to the National Flood Insurance Program, which is facing an influx of claims stemming from the hurricanes. Even before this year’s storms, the program was deep in debt to the Treasury, and it has now reached its $30.4 billion borrowing limit, according to FEMA.
The bill would erase $16 billion owed by the flood insurance program. But it does not include longer-term policy changes that the White House backed last week when it asked Congress to wipe away that debt. Without those changes, the flood-insurance program is likely to burn through its next allocation and have no choice but to borrow from the taxpayers again.
An advocacy group, the SmarterSafer coalition, said in a letter to congressional leaders on Thursday: “The additional $16 billion needed in the flood program means that the program will be essentially $46 billion in debt to U.S. taxpayers.” The group, which is made up of insurers, environmental groups, taxpayer advocates and others, urged lawmakers to take up the White House’s proposals.
The latest aid package must still be passed by the Senate, which is away for a weeklong recess but is scheduled to return next week.