House heads toward passage of Harvey aid bill, debt hike

Friday, September 08, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 36

WASHINGTON (AP) — Conservative grumbling aside, the House is heading toward backing a $15.3 billion disaster aid package that President Donald Trump and Democrats have linked to a temporary increase in America's borrowing authority and keeping the government funded through December.

The House vote on Friday would send the massive package to Trump for his signature, replenishing rapidly dwindling emergency accounts as Florida braces for the impact of Hurricane Irma this weekend and Texas picks up the pieces after the devastation of the Harvey storm.

The must-do legislation, backed 80-17 by the Senate on Thursday, would provide money to fund government agencies through Dec. 8, eliminating the threat of a shutdown when the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1. Republicans cast all 17 no votes.

Trump stunned Republicans by cutting a deal with Democratic leaders Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi to increase the debt limit for three months, rather than the long-term approach preferred by the GOP. Voting on the debt limit is politically toxic for Republicans, and the deal will make the GOP vote twice ahead of next year's midterm elections.

Fiscal conservatives have clamored for deep cuts in spending in exchange for any increase in the government's borrowing authority. The storm relief measure had widespread support, but the linkage with the debt ceiling left many Republicans frustrated.

"It's like the Washington that Trump campaigned against," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. "So, as much as I want to help Texas, I can't vote for something that just is a blank check on the debt."

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, a former tea party congressman from South Carolina who took a hard line against debt increases during his years in the House, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin planned to travel to the Capitol on Friday to sell the measure to skeptical rank-and-file Republicans.

But most in the GOP said they weren't upset with Trump himself.

"I think this may be just a one-off," said Rep. Mark Walker, R-S.C., chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. "Our guys were a little surprised about it, but if this becomes a pattern, then, yeah, it would create some cause for concern,"

Walker said he expects two-thirds of the Republican Study Committee to oppose the massive package.

Democratic votes are invariably needed to increase the debt limit — and avert a potential market-quaking default on government obligations — and Schumer and Pelosi successfully pressed to waive the debt limit through Dec. 8.

As a practical measure, since the arcane debt-limit suspension replenishes Treasury's ability to tap other accounts to maintain cash flows, the actual date of a potential default wouldn't come before February or March. That's according to a back-of-the-envelope calculation by Shai Akabas, who tracks the issue for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank.

The aid money comes as Harvey recovery efforts are draining federal disaster aid coffers and Irma heads toward Florida. It's just the first installment on a recovery and rebuilding package for the twin hurricanes that could eclipse the more than $110 billion cost to taxpayers of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Late Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., added $7.4 billion in rebuilding funding to Trump's $7.9 billion request to deal with the immediate emergency in Texas and parts of Louisiana.

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