Congress

Florida, Texas lawmakers threaten government shutdown over hurricane relief funding

Hurricane Irma debris clearing in the Village of Biscayne Park, where public works employees have worked 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week until all the debris is removed from the streets.
Hurricane Irma debris clearing in the Village of Biscayne Park, where public works employees have worked 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week until all the debris is removed from the streets. emichot@miamiherald.com

It’s been 82 days since Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys, and lawmakers from Florida and Texas huddled together on Friday to gain leverage for their hurricane-stricken states as they seek billions in relief.

If congressional leaders don’t do enough to allay the concerns of lawmakers from Florida and Texas, the two states’ delegations will vote en masse against a disaster funding plan that could be attached to a spending plan known as a continuing resolution that keeps the government running.

“Unless substantial changes are made, we are not going to support the CR,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, who co-authored a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi signed by members from Florida and Texas on Friday. “We will use the clout of both of our delegations. Without significant changes this supplemental cannot be allowed to go through.”

Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, D-Texas, is opposed to the administration’s request and said the government could be shut down if Florida and Texas don’t get what they need.

“We do not have the adequate resources and this is going to be on the verge of a government shutdown if Texas and all the other victims of these hurricanes do not have a compromise where we can work together,” Jackson Lee said at a Homeland Security hearing on Thursday.

The letter opposing the White House’s disaster relief request was signed by 38 members from Texas and Florida as of Friday evening. The $44 billion disaster relief request, announced before Thanksgiving, upset Democrats and Republicans from Florida and Texas, who argue that much more needs to be done for disaster relief.

“Unless the disaster supplemental appropriations bill is significantly improved before it is brought to a vote on the House floor, we will be unable to support this legislation,” the letter reads.

While Republicans are stopping short of an explicit shutdown threat and express confidence that leadership will listen to them, the next disaster funding proposal could be tied to a proposal that funds the government for a period of time.

Congressional leaders must pass a bill that funds the government by Dec. 8 to avoid a shutdown. It is possible that congressional leaders could pass a short-term funding bill next week to keep the government open through the end of December or early January.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, said leadership is likely to tie a disaster relief plan to a second continuing resolution after passing a short-term resolution next week.

There are 63 members of Congress from Florida and Texas, and the nation’s second and third most populous states could create a powerful voting bloc in the House that forces Ryan to tweak a disaster relief package. More than half of the Florida and Texas delegation attended a Friday meeting to outline their opposition, and other members who weren’t in attendance are also supportive of the effort to vote against a disaster bill without funding changes.

“Today I joined my colleagues from Florida and Texas in expressing our extreme disappointment in [Office of Management and Budget’s] supplemental request,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, said in a statement. “I have made it abundantly clear that any supplemental I vote for must provide adequate funding in disaster relief funds. I find OMB’s latest request to be unacceptable, especially after so many of my Floridian and Texan colleagues have repeatedly expressed their concerns.”

Wasserman Schultz acknowledged that it takes time to evaluate how much money will be needed for disaster recovery after a major storm, but most of the evaluations are now finished and the money still hasn’t been doled out. The current disaster relief proposal is the third such proposal to go through Congress since Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas in late August.

“Much of the needs have been evaluated and are still not addressed,” Wasserman Schultz said. “It’s absolutely essential to not let a third supplemental pass without substantive changes. We have to essentially sound the alarm bells that this is serious enough to withhold our entire delegation’s vote.”

The $44 billion White House request is extremely small compared to some proposals for Puerto Rico and Texas alone. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott requested an additional $65 billion in aid for his state in October, while the Puerto Rican government requested $94 billion for a long-term rebuilding plan.

Houston Republican Rep. John Culberson, whose district experienced widespread flooding after Hurricane Harvey, said the administration hasn’t done enough to help flood victims.

“I’m deeply troubled that the administration’s request contains no funds for housing,” Culberson said, admonishing Department of Housing and Urban Development assistant secretary Neal Rackleff during a congressional hearing on Friday.

While the Florida and Texas delegations agree that the current disaster funding request isn’t enough, there are some specific issues that are important to certain members. Central Florida Republicans who represent vast swaths of farmland have been asking for specific funds to help the state’s citrus and dairy industries for weeks.

“Yet again our cries for help for Florida’s growers — especially our iconic citrus growers — were ignored,” Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, said in a letter to congressional leaders. “Hurricane Irma hit Florida over two months ago, and the losses this storm caused to Florida’s agriculture industry across the entire state are staggering. For the citrus growers, fruit is still dropping off the trees. The trees’ root systems are rotting; there is no telling how badly this will affect the industry’s future and so far no effective federal aid has been delivered.”

Hurricane relief funding is just one of many issues that must be handled in the coming weeks if congressional leaders want to keep the government open. A group of moderate Republicans, including Curbelo and Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said earlier this week that they won’t vote for a long-term spending bill unless there’s a deal to help undocumented young adults who came to the U.S. as young children.

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty

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