When It Rains, It Pours: 10 Things to Watch as Hurricane Aid Flows

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By Nancy Ognanovich

Key appropriators are signaling that a Hurricane Harvey disaster aid package is likely to follow the approach Congress took after Hurricane Katrina, with a quick round of federal funds, followed by other packages that fine-tuned the details of federal assistance.

Lawmakers cautioned that the price tag to cover the widespread damage in the Gulf Coast region won’t be known for weeks—if not months—as waters retreat and federal agencies make their assessments. But the costs are said likely to far exceed the $51.8 billion initially provided after Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Harvey has already doused the region with more than four feet of water and displaced thousands of people. Some 11,000 Texans took refuge in Houston’s convention center alone.

Conservatives in the Republican Party aren’t expected to object to the package, even if it advances on an “emergency” basis without cuts in the budget. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who opposed the Sandy supplemental spending bill for carrying “pork,” said he’s working to get all the local, state, and federal support he can to help constituents in his state recover.

“We’re going to see bipartisan support in Congress for providing the aid Texans need,” Cruz told reporters.

But as the process goes forward, lawmakers said they can’t rule out a scenario where many other items get attached to the spending legislation, some of which could sharply drive up its cost. Here are 10 things to watch.

1. Stopgap Funding Bill Possible Vehicle

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said it’s possible the first round of assistance will get attached to a must-pass vehicle like the bill to fund the federal government after current funds expire Sept. 30. Republican leaders and the White House are discussing a plan to continue current federal funding at the $1.070 trillion level through December.

2. Debt Limit Alternative Route

Also said possible to carry relief could be a bill to increase the federal debt limit, also expiring around the same time. Or, in the alternative, the debt limit, the stopgap, and the hurricane recovery funds could all move together, Blunt said.

3. Combine With Flood Insurance Authorization

Republican leaders also are expected to extend the expiring National Flood Insurance Program by Sept. 30. That authorization and disaster aid could be combined and take a ride on the stopgap or debt limit bill, aides said.

4. Disaster Aid for Other States

Aides said help for Texas, Louisiana, and possibly other states to recover from Harvey might not be the only assistance provided this fall. Among other things, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) told Congress earlier this year that the state still hadn’t received all the federal aid it was promised to address flooding in the spring and summer of 2016.

5. Assistance for North Carolina

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) wrote to President Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in May pointing out that the state got only a “shocking” $6.1 million of the $929.4 million it sought in last year’s spending package to address damages the state sustained during Hurricane Matthew last year.

6. More Natural Disasters on Horizon

Storms in the future could drive the price tag of a supplemental spending package higher, aides said. Hurricane Matthew, which caused $15 billion in damage, hit the southeastern U.S. in 2016.

7. Presidential “Emergency” Requests

Adding to the unknowns is the possibility that Trump himself may ask for extra funding unrelated to disaster aid. He recently said in a prime time speech that he wants to increase troop levels in Afghanistan. Aides said it hasn’t been ruled out that the president will ask Congress for more money outside the regular budget process for that.

8. Opioid “Emergency” Money

Trump attracted the attention of budget hawks when he recently called the opioid crisis an emergency that requires a federal response. “Trump may have been signaling [that] he plans to request additional dollars using the emergency designation and not to cut other spending to pay for it,” said Stan Collender, executive vice president of MSLGROUP.COM.

9. Tax Relief for Storm-Ravaged States

In the aftermath of Sandy the tax-writing committees in Congress also wrote tax relief legislation to help states hurt by the monster storm. A similar effort could be seen this fall when lawmakers consider broader tax legislation.

10. Money for Border Wall

Trump continues to threatens to hold government funding hostage if Congress doesn’t give him the $1.6 billion he wants for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Including it in a must-pass stopgap would threaten Democratic support, but it could also appear in a later different spending bill.

Besides the September stopgap, the most likely vehicle for much of the extra spending remains the $1.1 trillion, 12-bill omnibus appropriations package that Republican leaders want to pass in December. Besides spending, that package also could be the vehicle to enact tax cuts and get many other legislative items across the finish line, aides said.

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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