WASHINGTON – Less than two weeks after Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston, wrecked thousands of homes and took the lives of more than 70 people along the Gulf Coast, the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday for an initial $15.25 billion in storm aid, doubling down on relief package passed by the House a day earlier.
The 80-17 Senate vote bounced the measure back to the House, which is expected to give its final approval Friday. That will replenish the federal government’s depleted disaster fund, just in time to deal with the impact of Hurricane Irma in addition to Harvey.
The new aid package, approved in lightning speed by the standards of an increasingly polarized Congress, is nearly double the $7.85 billion approved Wednesday by the House. Congressional leaders said it is but a down payment on a total storm bill that could exceed Hurricane Katrina’s $120 billion toll. Many forecasters say Irma’s economic destruction could be even greater.
After the vote, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called the federal response “swift and effective.”
Still, while Texas lawmakers cheered Congress’ rapid response, some also lamented that the larger sum is tied to a controversial fiscal agreement President Donald Trump reached with Democrats this week. That plan delays until December politically fraught decisions about 2018 government spending levels and an increase in the nation’s debt limit.
Conservatives in both the House and Senate expressed opposition to the debt deal, which they see a way of putting off debate about government spending cuts.
“This should have been done as a stand-alone bill,” said U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Republican from storm-tossed Corpus Christi.
“The debt ceiling deserves a debate and discussion on its own,” Blake said. “It’s an opportunity for us to take a look at some of the wasteful government spending that’s going on. That debate is lost in the disaster relief debate, and that’s disappointing.”
Despite those misgivings, Farenthold joined with much of the rest of the Texas delegation Thursday in a show of bipartisan unity on the Capitol grounds. They also announced the formation of a bipartisan working group to look for short- and long-term proposals to help the region deal with storms, coastal protection and perennial flooding.
The linkage of the controversial debt limit deal to disaster relief for Texas and Louisiana seemed to make House approval all but certain, especially after the reluctant backing of Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a tea party conservative.
“It is unfortunate that congressional leadership and the administration chose to tie Harvey relief to short-term extensions (of government funding) and the debt ceiling,” Cruz said.
“Historically, the (funding) and debt ceiling have proven to be the only effective leverage for meaningful spending reform,” Cruz said, “and I believe we should continue to use them as tools to reduce our long-term debt. I would have much preferred a clean Harvey relief bill – which would have passed both houses nearly unanimously.”
Nevertheless, conservatives in the House laid down a marker. North Carolina Republican Mark Walker, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said in a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan on Thursday that his group of more than 150 opposes Trump’s deal to extend the debt limit.
But even with a significant number of dissenting Republicans, the storm aid is still expected to pass with Democratic votes.
U.S. Rep. John Culberson, a Republican whose district includes parts of Houston and Harris County, said Thursday he was not concerned.
“Everyone’s working arm-in-arm right now to ensure that people who were hurt are taken care of,” Culberson said. “So I don’t expect to see many people peel off.”
Some of the no votes in the Senate included the chamber’s most fiscally conservative members, including libertarian Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Paul, who grew up in Lake Jackson, outside Houston, tried unsuccessfully to tie the Gulf aid package to other budget cuts. “We’re just adding to our 20 trillion dollar bill,” he said. “They’re giving away your grandchildren’s money to help people.”
Senate leaders said it is necessary to raise the federal government’s legal debt limit to pay for the storm relief.
“Without lifting the debt limit we couldn’t actually vote for and send aid to the victims of Harvey, because we’d be bumping up against the debt ceiling,” said Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate.
‘Significant first step’
Cornyn and Cruz both have been criticized for opposing a 2012 Superstorm Sandy relief measure that they and other Texas Republicans said was bloated and filled with unrelated spending. Some Republicans at the time also were calling for offsetting spending cuts.
On Thursday, Cruz took pains to argue that the Harvey relief funds are narrowly drawn.
“These funds are immediate, properly targeted to the areas hit by the storm, and focused on clean-up and rebuilding,” Cruz said. “This will not be nearly enough to cover all the costs – most estimates of total damage are well in excess of $100 billion – but it is a significant first step. And Congress is committed to meeting the additional need as it is accurately quantified in the months ahead.”
The Senate move came as Hurricane Irma, considered one of the largest Atlantic storms on record, approaches the Florida coast.
“The recovery effort for a record-setting storm like Harvey has strained resources to the limit already,” GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “The advance of another historic storm now makes the need for action even more urgent.”
The Senate plan took shape Thursday as Houston Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, backed by other Texas Democrats, proposed a $174 billion aid package for the Gulf region.
Cornyn, however, said that federal aid for Hurricane Harvey is more likely to come in installments, much like in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“As the waters recede and folks return to their communities, Texans are still trying to take stock of the damage left by Harvey,” he said.
“This funding will serve as an initial first step towards helping Texans begin the process of rebuilding,” Cornyn said. “I’ll continue to work with federal, state and local officials to ensure Texas gets the resources we need to recover from this devastating hurricane.”
By Kevin Diaz