Harvey disaster relief could provide rare moment of bipartisanship in Congress

Texas Gov. Greg Abbot and President Donald Trump listen during a briefing on Harvey relief efforts, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Corpus Christi, Texas. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The floodwaters continued to rise in southeast Texas and Lousiana on Tuesday where millions have been caught in the path of Hurricane Harvey. President Donald Trump promised a swift response from the federal government, including billions of dollars in emergency relief funding from Congress.

Despite the lack of good will in Washington, disaster relief for Texas may provide a rare opportunity for a bitterly divided government to come together.

On Monday, Trump said he has been in contact with members of Congress and expects "very rapid action" to address the natural disaster.

"We think that Congress will feel very much the way I feel, in a very bipartisan way," the president said. "We think you're going to have what you need and it's going to go fast ... I think you'll be up and running very, very quickly."

Trump has yet to score a major legislative victory during his first seven months in office and in recent weeks he has openly feuded with members of his own party. But there are signs from Capitol Hill that Congress may react "very, very quickly" to the disaster hitting the Gulf Coast.

On Monday House Speaker Paul Ryan's office said Congress is ready to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey as soon as the president sends them a request. "The first step in that process is a formal request for resources from the administration," Ryan spokeswoman said.

On the other side of the aisle, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi issued a statement urging bipartisan cooperation to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey. "Republicans must be ready to join Democrats in passing a timely relief bill that makes all necessary resources available through emergency spending," Pelosi said.

The situation in Texas is shaping up to be different from recent years when Congress rarely let a major natural disaster stand in the way of partisanship. Hurricane Sandy was a notable example. After the superstorm ravaged the eastern seaboard in 2013, Republicans stalled passage of a $51 billion emergency relief bill for the victims of Hurricane Sandy for three months.

At the time, both senators from Texas and 20 of the state's Republican congressmen voted against federal relief for Sandy. Over the weekend a number of lawmakers from New York and New Jersey, states hard-hit by Sandy, decided they would not use a political disagreement to deprive the people of Texas.

"NY wont abandon Texas. 1 bad turn doesnt deserve another," Rep. Steve King (R-N.Y.) tweeted.

Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone of New Jersey urged Congress to "put foolish @GOP opposition to previous disaster aid behind us" and provide relief for Texas.

There are many ways for Congress to appropriate the relief funds. They could pass a stand-alone emergency appropriations bill strictly dedicated to Hurricane Harvey relief, but experts say Congress is more likely to push through relief as part of a larger package of must-pass measures.

Paul Bledsoe, lecturer at American University and former Senate Finance Committee staffer, explained that lawmakers could take advantage of this rare moment of bipartisan good will to pass a government spending bill, raise the debt ceiling and get relief for the victims of Harvey.

"I think it's all going to get done at once at the end of September," Bledsoe said. "The political stars are aligning for that to be the way they can handle it."

Only last week the September 30 deadline to fund the government was shaping up to be a brawl between Democrats, Republicans and the president after Trump threatened to shut down the government if Congress didn't provide billions of dollars for the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

At the same time, a number fiscal conservatives in the House and Senate were signaling their intention to vote against raising the U.S. borrowing limit.

"The bottom line is this emergency is going to ease passage of the debt limit and likely the broader budget and quiet the calls from budget hawks over deficit spending for the moment," Bledsoe insisted.

The gloves could come off later in the year if Congress is only able to pass a continuing resolution, funding the government for the next few months.

Josh Huder, senior fellow at the Georgetown University's Government Affair's Institute, noted that combining the emergency relief into a must-pass bill "greases the wheels" for congressmen who would have otherwise voted against the debt ceiling or federal budget. "It gives legislators who are otherwise reluctant to vote for that particular package an excuse to vote for it."

It also puts additional pressure on President Trump to sign off on a spending bill from Congress if it includes emergency relief funds.

Another political incentive for the GOP-led Congress to react quickly to Hurricane Harvey is the sheer size and influence of the Texas delegation within the Republican Party.

With 36 representatives, 25 of whom are Republicans, Texas has the second-largest congressional delegation. In the Senate, Texas Sen. John Cornyn wields significant influence as the majority whip.

"There are a lot of powerful individuals in the Texas delegation that you could easily see putting their thumb on the scales and pushing it through more quickly than otherwise," said Huder who thinks Congress will appropriate relief money by September.

"I think this is one of those things that has a lot of political momentum in the moment."

Donald Trump told reporters on Monday that Hurricane Harvey will cost "many billions of dollars." For the time being, he said there is enough money in Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund to take care of the immediate needs of Texas and Louisiana.

However, that disaster relief fund was drained down to only $3.8 billion at the end of July and depending on the conditions on the ground, could run out more quickly than anticipated.

Only four days after Harvey first made landfall, it is still much too soon to estimate the damage caused by the storm. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Democrat whose district includes downtown Houston, told CNN on Monday that Congress should be putting together a $150 billion aid package.

As Trump touched down in Corpus Christi to meet with emergency relief officials, the storm system was lingering over southeast Texas. Harvey has already dumped a record-breaking 49 inches of rain on Houston and forced at least 30,000 people out of their homes and into shelters. And according to some forecasts, Harvey could make landfall again on Wednesday.

According to Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the Columbia University National Center for Disaster Preparedness, the biggest presidential challenge for Trump will not be Texas, but Washington.

"In disaster response, the test for Trump's leadership is yet to come," Schlegelmilch said. "He's got to bring Congress together and unify under the leadership of the administration ... and get [relief] legislation passed"

The initial signs suggest that Republicans and Democrats can join together to support a major disaster relief bill, but there are "a lot of landmines on the path," he said.

Fiscal conservatives could come out against billions of dollars in additional government spending, or take a stand against reauthorizing the $25 billion National Flood Insurance Program.

Either party or the White House could add divisive language to must-pass legislation.

"That would obviously create fissures within the Congress that could delay the passage of this," Schlegelmilch noted. "But we haven't seen any hints of that, at least not yet."

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