Hurricane Harvey Aid to Move in Fall, Lawmakers Say

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By Nancy Ognanovich

House and Senate appropriators are laying the groundwork for a major effort this fall to provide billions of dollars in disaster aid to Texas and possibly adjoining states devastated by Hurricane Harvey.

Key appropriators said they expect Congress to provide the first slug of funds for the affected states this September, likely in a stopgap bill needed to prevent a government shutdown on Sept. 30.

“Very shortly we’ll come up with a package,” Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, told Bloomberg BNA.

The south Texas region President Donald Trump toured as Boozman spoke received more than four feet of water over the past few days and many areas remain underwater. The storm damage is estimated in the range of $30 billion or more, but accurate assessments won’t be known for weeks or even months, lawmakers said.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the Labor, Health, and Human Services Subcommittee, told reporters he has no doubt Congress will pass an aid package early in the fall and didn’t rule out a scenario where it is attached to the next continuing resolution or a bill to raise the debt limit “or all of the above combined.”

But Blunt said he believes Congress will provide an initial aid package and then follow it up with more when damages are better understood. He said the model shouldn’t be something similar to the $60 billion supplemental passed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which hit the Northeast in 2012.

“My view has always been that ... you’re better off to pass multiple bills knowing what the real costs are rather than some number that no one can really justify,” Blunt told reporters. "[W]e are still trying to spend all the Sandy money.”

High Price Tag Seen

Before the hurricane hit, Trump was threatening to shut down the government on Oct. 1 if he didn’t get $1.6 billion to begin building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The storm in Texas may make a shutdown less likely if a continuing resolution carries billions of dollars in disaster aid for Texas.

Trump committed the federal government to providing disaster assistance to the region saying he expects to have federal agency requests soon and predicted bipartisan support for a relief package.

“It’s going to be a costly proposition,” Trump said while meeting with lawmakers in Austin.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), who was the main force behind passage of the Sandy supplemental, said in a statement that his committee also will be ready to move.

“We are awaiting requests from federal agencies who are on the ground,” Frelinghuysen said.

The Sandy supplemental (P.L. 113-2) that Congress passed in January 2013 was repeatedly delayed as conservatives—including most Republican members of the Texas delegation—insisted on budget offsets. Northeastern Republicans who said previous supplementals to help southern states had been easily approved without conditions won’t try to hold up Harvey aid.

“As a lifelong NYer w/NY values I will vote for emergency Harvey $ for Ted Cruz’s constituents,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said via Twitter.

Two-Step Process Described

Based on the Sandy supplemental, dozens of government programs could receive extra funds via a supplemental this year. Such a package could direct a large amount to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration, and Community Development Block Grants.

Aides said other large amounts could be directed to:

  •  the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,
  •  the Defense Department, and
  •   the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Transportation Department, they said, also could be in line for funds in order to help repair highway, bridge, transit, and aviation facilities in the region.

FEMA, they said, had a $3 billion balance at the end of July to use for disaster aid. But the agency is expected to blow through the funds very quickly, they said, adding that when it hits the $1 billion mark it usually suspends payments to states with less critical needs.

Boozman said he believes the Senate Appropriations Committee may be looking at a two-step process initially.

Boozman said appropriators are likely to provide only an initial slug of funds in a stopgap needed to fund the government in September. He said it’s possible the bulk of the funds then could be attached to an omnibus spending package that moves at the end of the year.

“The first thing you’ve got to do is give some of the initial funds and assess the damage. Then, when you’re really able to do so, you get the rest of it into some must-pass vehicle,” Boozman said.

“The biggest debate will be over the first bill and probably not whether to do it but exactly how to do it,” Blunt said. “There are a number of spending vehicles out there and this will be one of them I suspect. Either the CR or the debt limit or some other bill.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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