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$50 billion hurricane aid package seen quickly moving to House floor

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The size of the latest hurricane aid package to spur recovery in ravaged areas is expected to explode after the powerful Texas congressional delegation demanded that $18.7 billion be added to President Donald Trump’s $29 billion request.

Texas lawmakers in the House and Senate are pressuring top appropriators to add the extra funds even before the measure hits the House floor, expected in one week’s time. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he intends to have lawmakers sign off on the package before they leave Oct. 13 for a 10-day break.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the state’s delegation believes an increase is essential for Texas to recover from Hurricane Harvey. Cornyn said three Texas “cardinals” on the House Appropriations Committee are leading the effort to get the money into the supplemental that Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) is now developing for the floor.

“I think they’re expecting us to make the ask, and we are,” Cornyn told reporters after the delegation sent a letter to Frelinghuysen and other appropriators outlining the state’s needs.

Fast action on the emergency supplemental request is seen as necessary to shore up resources for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and to provide the first slug of federal assistance to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. FEMA is expected to soon exhaust funds from a supplemental passed in September after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Other funds could be attached to the legislation, including when the Senate takes it up after returning Oct. 16. Democrats in both chambers are calling for extra funds for the Community Development Block Grant program (CDBG), Small Business Administration loans, and more.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) fought House conservatives’ calls to offset the various funds, saying disaster relief traditionally is handled as a budget “emergency.”

“We haven’t asked for them when they affect Democratic areas and we haven’t asked for them when they affect Republican areas,” Schumer told reporters.

Bill to Floor by Oct. 13

The $15.25 billion in disaster aid Congress attached to a continuing resolution (H.R. 601) in September provided:

  •  $7.4 billion for the Department of Housing and Urban Development,
  • $450 million for the SBA loan program, and
  • $7.4 billion for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund to help it provide initial aid to Texas and Florida.

After Hurricane Maria slammed the U.S. territories, Trump requested:

  • $16 billion to shore up the government-backed Flood Insurance Program, which has exhausted its borrowing authority;
  • $12.8 billion would go to FEMA to respond to hurricane damage, primarily in Puerto Rico; and
  • $576.5 million to address wildfires.

But Cornyn said the Texas delegation was disappointed that the request didn’t include more money for its state. A quick meeting led lawmakers to ask appropriators for the extra funds for the state, he said.

“If we got that, then that would put us at roughly $35 billion,” Cornyn said. “[Hurricane] Sandy was $53 billion, and Katrina was over $100 billion, so I think that puts it in context. But that’s our best faith estimate of what the current need is. The House should put it on, and the entire Texas delegation, I believe, is together on that.”

More Aid Sought for Puerto Rico

Democrats, meanwhile, suggested they will seek more money for Puerto Rico, with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) saying the island ultimately may need $90 billion in assistance. He said it also needs help in dealing with its debt crisis. He said he wrote GOP leaders asking for an emergency aid package and CDBG grants for disaster recovery.

But Menendez said the effort will be hampered by the fact that Puerto Rico doesn’t have the representation New Jersey had after Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast. Back then, many Texas Republicans opposed giving the region disaster aid on an emergency basis.

“We had to fight tooth and nail every step of the way,” Menendez said.

Schumer said he is expecting a fight on “unpalatable” offsets and others said there could be another skirmish involving private flood insurance language that threatened an extension of federal aviation programs until it was dropped. The latter would encourage private insurance companies to enter the flood arena.

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