Northern California scorched as wildfires rage on
The House is poised Thursday — over the fierce objections of conservatives — to pass a $36.5 billion emergency package to help states and U.S. territories ravaged by a series of hurricanes and wildfires that have killed dozens and destroyed thousands of homes.
Conservative lawmakers are upset that the money is not offset by spending cuts elsewhere, but the political will to help those affected by in California, Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas and elsewhere is overwhelming.
“Going forward, we’re going to have more natural disasters and we need to rethink how to pay for these things,” said Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala., a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “We need to pay for them as the work is done, and not just write a blank check. When you just throw out a pile of money, it’s open to abuse.”
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee, complained that lawmakers did not have adequate time to review what he called an “ever-growing spending bill.”
The White House last week had requested $29 billion and called this week for an additional $5 billion to help Puerto Rico’s government. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Democrats had pushed for an extra $1 billion for emergency relief in the wake of the California fires.
The legislation, which is expected to draw strong support from Democrats and Republicans, closely mirrors the funding requests submitted by the administration, including $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund, $576.5 million for the Forest Service to battle wildfires and $16 billion for debt relief for the National Flood Insurance Program.
The legislation also includes a provision for the Disaster Nutrition Assistance Program to enable low-income residents in Puerto Rico to receive the same emergency nutrition assistance that other hurricane-affected states already receive.
Walker called for allowing members to offer amendments to cut spending elsewhere and to ensure transparency for how the money will be spent.
“Republicans control the White House and the Congress and we can not ignore or further enable our debt crisis,” Walker said. “We have no excuses and no scapegoats. It is time for tough choices and responsible governing.”
A number of lawmakers suggested they’d hold their nose and vote on the package, despite spending concerns and worries that similar emergency packages have been magnets for fraud. Conservatives have already “lost” the battle, given the severity of the catastrophes, said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.
“I’d like to see offsets in spending, but I know how that works out as far as a political battle is concerned in times of stress,” King said.
House Republican leaders and Democrats hailed the emergency spending package, the second in as many months. It’s unlikely to be the last: The White House suggested even before the California wildfires that it could return to Congress with a third or even fourth request for disaster spending
Congress in September approved a $15.3 billion aid package that included community development block grant rebuilding funds with emergency money for cleanup, repair and housing. The money was aimed at helping victims of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated parts of Texas and Louisiana.
"This is a time when our country needs to respond," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is leading a bipartisan delegation to Puerto Rico on Friday. “And this is a time when we here in Congress will respond because that is our responsibility.”
Democrats cheered the package. “Puerto Rico faces a long path to full recovery and we cannot rest until the island is made whole,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress. “I fully expect Congress to provide additional assistance, including rebuilding the energy grid, repairing telecommunications networks and mending the infrastructure system.”
Western states lawmakers called the $576.5 million for firefighting a “little bit of a win” that will help address record-breaking fires across several states.
“The catastrophic nature of the fires is turning peoples’ heads,” said Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho. “It’s becoming much more of an obvious problem.”
But Risch said more critical is legislation that would give the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management access to funds to fight fires from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates responses to disasters like hurricanes, if their budgets for fighting wildfires runs out.
Freedom Caucus members said they’d be more amenable to voting to the package if it includes reforms to the nation’s flood insurance program.
“The major concern is debt relief, just writing off debt with no reforms, discipline or logic,” said Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va.
The conservative group Heritage Action urged a no vote on the legislation, arguing against the $16 billion in debt relief for the flood insurance program.
“Federal relief to victims of hurricanes is warranted, but Congress must act in a fiscally responsible manner by offsetting funding that is not truly ‘emergency’ in nature,” Heritage wrote.
But Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. said the spending is the only way get regions damaged by storms and wildfires back on their feet.
“They’re not wasting money, there’s a recognition that it (spending) needs to get done,” Cole said.
Joseph Cooke and Andrea Drusch contributed to this report.