Congressional Republican leaders are confident the government has enough disaster aid to help with Hurricane Florence relief. Some Democrats think more money will be needed.
That could trigger a political battle just weeks before the midterm elections.
Such a fight would force conservative Republicans, who routinely insist they’re devoted to fiscal discipline, to spend more money so they won’t look callous after a natural disaster.
That’s proven to be a tough choice for many Republicans in the past, and it likely would be again.
Steve Ellis, vice president of the advocacy group Taxpayers for Common Sense, is already warning that Congress is about to write another lavish check when voters want fiscal restraint.
“What’s going to happen is, you can’t separate politics from the reality, and here you’ve got an election coming up, see a lot of stories about people that are trying to get their lives back together, the damage in the area, and there’s going to be a lot of pressure to do something,” said Ellis, who would like lawmakers to exhaust current resources before authorizing more.
On Friday morning, as the massive storm was making its way through the Carolinas, a senior aide with the House Republican Appropriations Committee told McClatchy that the Disaster Relief Fund — the official account used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to respond to the most immediate recovery needs — contained $25.6 billion.
“(This) is more than sufficient to meet current and ongoing needs,” the aide said.
“The FEMA fund is pretty well stocked right now, there’s no immediate need for money,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, a senior appropriator who wants to run the full committee in the next Congress, had agreed Thursday.
But at a separate press conference Friday on Capitol Hill, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California didn’t hesitate to declare this sum insufficient for likely long term rebuilding efforts.
In response to a question from McClatchy about whether she anticipated Congress would have to pass a special emergency disaster relief bill to help storm-ravaged North Carolina and South Carolina, Pelosi replied, “I think we are going to need more money, yes.”
As of midday Friday, Hurricane Florence — a Category 1 storm — was battering both states with devastating flooding, damaging winds and hundreds of thousands of downed power lines. The storm is expected to move slowly and linger for several more days, so it’s unclear what other damage could be incurred. At least five people have died.
In a conference call Friday afternoon, Alex Amparo, deputy assistant administrator of FEMA’s National Preparedness Directorate, said it was “very premature” to predict how much money it would cost to address damage from the hurricane.
In Washington, D.C., the GOP’s staunchest fiscal conservatives have a history of fighting emergency spending bills that aren’t fully paid for with corresponding cuts to others programs. An ideological standoff prompted a delay in passing aid after Superstorm Sandy ravaged parts of New York and New Jersey in 2012.
There were grumbles last year as Republican leaders sought to advance disaster aid after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, though Cole pointed out there were fewer holdouts in 2017 than after Sandy hit..
“I’ve noticed a lot of born-again people in disaster relief since we’ve had the series of hurricanes,” said Cole, noting that fiscal conservatives tend to support such bills when “their area gets hit.”
Still, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, was already making it clear he wasn’t interested in passing a disaster relief bill without offsets, even to rebuild his home state.
“I’ve always been consistent that we ought to fund FEMA and fund those items in preparation for storms that continue to come ... in a proactive way, not with emergency declarations every single time,” said Meadows, “because if we’re going to do that, then the budget is meaningless.
“It means what we are doing, each and every Congress, is passing an emergency appropriations bill, and that’s not the way to do business.”
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the founding Freedom Caucus chairman who wants to be the Speaker of the House in the next Congress, said he didn’t want to discuss hypothetical scenarios, but “I think when you got a $20 trillion debt, you gotta look at offsets.”
Pelosi acknowledged that Congress would have to wait and see the extent of the trauma on the Carolinas, but warned Republicans would have no excuse not to vote to spend more money if needed.
“Last year, the Republicans in the Congress of the United States were so irresponsible, taking our country $2 trillion into debt to give tax cuts that befitted the top 1 percent,” Pelosi said. “If they could do that, and squander and increase the debt and then nickel and dime us on meeting the needs of individuals in our communities, that’s just not right. I don’t think they would go down that path.”