Congress confident it will find money for Irma as FEMA runs low on funds

In this GOES-East satellite image taken Tuesday, and released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Hurricane Irma, a potentially catastrophic hurricane, moves westward in the Atlantic Ocean toward the Leeward Islands.
In this GOES-East satellite image taken Tuesday, and released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Hurricane Irma, a potentially catastrophic hurricane, moves westward in the Atlantic Ocean toward the Leeward Islands. AP

Donald Trump gave Florida some fiscal breathing room as Hurricane Irma approaches the state’s east coast.

The president gave Congress more time to pass a recovery package worth billions if Irma causes major damage when he defied Republicans on Wednesday. Trump cut a deal with Democrats to raise the nation’s debt ceiling and keep the government running as part of a package to provide hurricane-related aid.

FEMA is set to run out of money by Friday, but Congress is expected to quickly send a $15 billion relief bill for Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts and potential damage from Irma to Trump’s desk. The Senate passed the bill 80-17 on Thursday.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., like many Republicans, was not happy that Trump made a deal with Democrats instead of GOP lawmakers. But he acknowledged that the agreement makes it easier to get funding as Florida prepares for a major hurricane. The deal would extend government funding and the debt limit, which was expected to be reached this month, through December 15.

I have “never supported a debt limit increase without fiscal restraint,” Rubio told Fox News radio. “And about the only good news in this whole endeavor is that it does provide funding for FEMA and it does those sorts of things I’ve talked about until December, which hopefully gives us time to go about doing it the right way.”

Members of Congress from South Florida expressed optimism that Congress will provide FEMA with the funding necessary to help Florida recover.

“Congress has always been there for the victims of natural disasters and I have no doubt that we will use the people’s money wisely,” Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said. “This isn’t the government’s money, it’s the taxpayer’s money and that’s what they expect from their government agencies, to replenish the coffers of state and local officials who have dedicated a lot of funds to helping the community. I have no doubt that Congress will come through for us.”

The relatively quick response from Congress on Hurricane Harvey, which ravaged parts of Texas and Louisiana, as well as potential Hurricane Irma relief is in contrast to the months-long debate over funding for a Superstorm Sandy aid package in 2012 and 2013. When Congress was debating how much money to spend on Sandy, FEMA was relatively flush with cash to provide short-term relief to affected areas in New Jersey and New York.

That isn’t the case with FEMA in 2017.

The agency only has a few hundred million dollars, and it’s spending it fast.

“Earlier today, we had a conference call with FEMA officials, and the latest update is that FEMA has approximately $460 million remaining in its disaster relief fund,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo said at the Miami-Dade County Emergency Operations Center in Doral on Thursday. “They are spending at a clip of $200 million a day.”

The $15 billion Congress is considering gives FEMA 75 more days of funding if it spends about $200 million a day. FEMA’s spending could go up depending on how much is needed for Harvey and Irma.

“I want the Senate to be forewarned that this $15 billion package, this is only temporary, it will probably only take us through mid-October at the most,” Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said Thursday.

Members of Congress from Florida and Texas were confident more money will be available if needed.

“Above all the principal message here today is to let the people of Texas and southeast Louisiana know that help is on the way,” said Texas Republican Rep. John Culberson, who represents a Houston-based district heavily impacted by Harvey. “To the people of Florida, our hearts go out to you and we’re praying for you, and this relief package will certainly help you as well, with this terrible storm that’s approaching the coast.”

Another advantage for future Harvey and Irma funding is the sheer size of Texas and Florida delegations. The two states combined have 63 House members and many conservative Republicans who are typically reluctant to vote for large spending bills. Most of the Texas and Florida Republicans voted against a major Sandy relief package in 2013.

Conservative Republicans from Florida and Texas who could slow a 2017 package over spending concerns now have a humanitarian incentive to help constituents.

Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, who voted against the Sandy bill in 2013, said the two hurricanes won’t prevent Congress from helping Texas and Florida.

“We’ll have to assess Irma and its path and devastation in terms of the disaster relief fund,” McCaul said.

Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed.

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty