The catastrophic floods brought by Hurricane Harvey to southeastern Texas will pose an immediate test for the White House and Congress, pressing policymakers to approve billions of dollars in recovery funds even though they haven’t agreed on much else this year.
White House officials and Republican leaders are already taking stock of the challenge, even as the floodwaters in Texas — and the eventual cost of recovery — were still rising. One senior White House official and GOP aides on Capitol Hill said late Sunday they expected to begin discussing an “emergency” package of funding soon to help with relief and rebuilding efforts, even if agreement as to the size of such a package remained premature.
Harvey’s devastation poses President Donald Trump’s first test in emergency assistance, potentially revealing whether he can overcome Congress’ deep divisions over spending and the budget to prioritize aid. It will also test whether Trump can postpone his own agenda, notably an overhaul of the tax code, to assemble a major — and costly — package that could be directed to law enforcement, emergency relief, schools, infrastructure, hospitals, food banks and several other entities.
The storm comes as Washington was gripped with a budget battle and little time to resolve differences. Many government operations are only funded through the end of September, and Trump has threatened to partially shut down the government if lawmakers don’t approve $1.6 billion in funding to construct parts of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Harvey could upend that budget fight, pressuring politicians to reach a quick resolution. That is because a government shutdown could sideline agencies involved in a rescue and relief effort that officials are predicting will last years.
Also likely to be a factor is the prevailing view among hard-line Republicans — notably during the debate about Hurricane Sandy — that aid packages should be offset by corresponding budget cuts. Democrats are sure to remind Republicans, particularly those from Texas who voted against the Sandy package, of their past stands.
The economic impact of major storms can be severe.
Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, caused $160 billion in damage, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 caused around $70 billion in damage, according to inflation-adjusted figures provided by the federal government. Both of those storms prompted major fights in Congress, with some prominent Republicans resisting emergency aid packages because of concerns about what it would mean for the federal budget.
Trump has promised to extend federal assistance to help respond to the hurricane but has not commented in any detail. He is planning to visit Texas on Tuesday, but he is also planning on flying to Missouri on Wednesday to bash Democrats as part of his push for a large package of tax cuts.
If the humanitarian crisis worsens in Texas in the coming days, Republicans could be forced to rethink the timing of their push for corporate tax cuts that they had hoped would dominate the fall political calendar.
That is in part because several other federal programs that are often overlooked could draw much more attention.
The federal Disaster Relief Fund administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, had a balance of $3.8 billion at the end of July, of which $1.6 billion is already obligated, according to the most recent federal report. Trump declared Harvey a major disaster Friday, making Texas victims eligible for relief from that fund. But with damage estimates already rising into the tens of billions of dollars, the fund’s balance is almost certainly inadequate.
The White House had proposed an 11 percent cut to FEMA’s budget as a way to free up more money for the military. But GOP leaders had signaled they would ignore that request — at least for the next few months — and keep FEMA funding basically flat. They could come under pressure to boost FEMA’s budget, however, particularly because the Atlantic hurricane season is only about half over and there could be more dangerous storms.
Democratic aides said they expect the party to support a Harvey aid package, but they said lawmakers will not be shy about pointing out what they see as hypocrisy among GOP lawmakers, many of whom represent Texas, who opposed Sandy aid.
Directing emergency funds to areas hit by natural disasters had traditionally been quick bipartisan exercises, but that changed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Ultimately, a Katrina aid package passed with only token opposition from Republicans — thanks to a heavy push from then-President George W. Bush, who many lawmakers from both parties criticized for responding too slowly to a storm that killed more than 1,800 people.
By the time Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey and New York in 2012, offsetting any new spending had become a key tenet for most Republicans, so when then-President Barack Obama pushed for a $60 billion package of federal aid, it sparked more than three months of partisan sparring — a delay that left Democrats and northeastern Republicans fuming while the remainder of the GOP fulminated against the threat of a growing national debt and the inclusion of spending they deemed extraneous in the aid package.
REPRINTED FROM THE JACKSONVILLE DAILY NEWS, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM