House passes $218B disaster aid package
The package is the largest single infusion of federal relief dollars yet for areas ravaged by hurricanes and wildfires this year
By Katie Leslie
Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON — The House passed an $81 billion disaster aid package Thursday, the largest single infusion of federal relief dollars yet for areas ravaged by hurricanes and wildfires this year.
The measure was approved 251-169, drawing opposition from some conservative Republicans and Democrats alike. The vote came moments after the chamber acted to avert a government shutdown, approving by 231-188 a stripped-down measure to fund the government through Jan. 19.
Two Texans — Dallas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Republican, and Austin Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat — voted against the aid bill.
The Senate quickly approved the stopgap spending bill by a 66-32 vote but is punting the disaster aid vote until at least January. Then, lawmakers will also consider a host of politically thorny issues including health care, immigration and the budget.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, had warned that delaying a disaster aid vote until December risked pushing it to 2018. On Thursday, he confirmed that there's not enough time for the Senate to pass the aid bill this week. He blamed Democrats, though Republicans also want changes to the bill.
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 approved by the Senate, 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, Cornyn said he advised his House counterparts to “please pass something” so that the Senate could quickly take it up. 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 told The Dallas Morning News.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said he spoke with Abbott on Thursday and that the governor expressed "serious concerns" that the bill doesn't direct nearly enough resources to Texas, given the magnitude of the devastation.
"I am hopeful when this body returns in two weeks that we will work together in a bipartisan way to ensure that the promises made to the state of Texas are fulfilled and that the resources are there to help our state rebuild," Cruz said.
Doggett cited the Senate's inaction — along with the decision to delay a long-term extension of the Children's Health Insurance Program and resolution on the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — as reasons he joined many Democrats in voting against the aid bill.
He called the vote "largely symbolic" and said "the real disaster here is this Republican Congress which shows such indifference to the needs of so many while showering tax breaks on the fortunate few."
Hensarling has previously voted against disaster aid packages because of concerns about adding to the national debt and the failure to overhaul the National Flood Insurance Program. He cited those reasons again Thursday, joining a number of conservatives who slammed the measure because it wasn't offset with spending cuts.
"The loss and hardship families and communities face because of these storms and fires, especially in my home state, is heart-wrenching, but I have not changed my opinion on the need to offset the funding and bring greater accountability to how this money is spent," he said in a prepared statement.
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.
Friendswood Rep. Randy Weber is also among the Texans concerned that, despite the size of the $81 billion request, the state won’t see enough direct federal aid to help rebuild from the August storm.
It is unclear 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,” said Weber, a Republican who represents parts of the Gulf Coast.
Houston Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat who voted in favor of the measure, called the funding package "woefully insufficient" but said it will "deliver a much-needed infusion of revenue to repair badly damaged infrastructure and advance the arduous task of recovery."
Abbott has asked Washington to approve a wish list of over $60 billion in Texas Harvey aid, though much of his 300-page request entailed ambitious long-term flood control projects, instead of just restoring what was damaged by the storm.
Last month, he blasted the White House’s $44 billion request as "completely inadequate" and said it "does not live up" to what President Donald Trump has pledged in recovery aid.