Harvey Aid Bill Creates Dilemma for Texas Republicans

Most oppose move to tack debt and CR to disaster relief

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer struck a rare deal with Republican President Donald Trump on Thursday (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer struck a rare deal with Republican President Donald Trump on Thursday (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 8, 2017 at 5:02am

A measure that would provide Hurricane Harvey disaster relief to Texas has politically perplexed members of the Lone Star State’s congressional delegation, some of whom plan to vote against it.

That’s because it includes a debt ceiling extension and only three months’ worth of government funding — a deal struck by President Donald Trump with House and Senate Democratic leaders.

The agreement reached Wednesday at the White House gave the minority party new leverage that could further exacerbate the divide between the president and GOP leadership.

But it also left members of Congress on both sides of the aisle scratching their heads at the notion of Trump accepting the three-pronged package backed by leaders of a party he has often blasted as “obstructionists.”

And it has complicated matters for Republican members of the Texas delegation, who must vote on a measure that includes what they want — Harvey disaster aid — but would also raise the country’s debt limit and increase spending — notions they viscerally oppose.

“It’s a crap sandwich,” Texas GOP Rep. Bill Flores said Thursday.

Unpalatable option

Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker said two-thirds of the more than 150-member conservative caucus plan to vote against the bill expected on the House floor Friday. That includes Walker.

“You’re not going to get the majority of the majority of Republicans,” the North Carolina Republican said.

Another one of those Republicans, Texas Rep. Joe L. Barton, said he would vote no on the bill because the debt ceiling extension included in the package weighed heavily on him.

Barton said there would be opportunities to provide more money for victims of the hurricane in Texas in the future.

All but three Republicans in the House voted in favor of a bill Wednesday that would appropriate $7.9 billion in emergency funding as an initial payment to cover the costs of responding to Hurricane Harvey. All Texas Republican members voted for the measure.

When that bill reached the Senate, a three-month continuing resolution to fund the government until December was attached. Federal disaster aid increased to $15.25 billion and a suspension of the public debt limit was also included. Upon passage in the Senate on Thursday, the bill is expected to return to the House for another vote Friday.

Barton, like other Texas Republicans, said the deal struck by Trump with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi did not factor into his opposition.

“I’m voting no because we have a debt ceiling vote with no reform attached to it. Period,” Barton said. “It’s unfortunate. They ought to be separate votes.”

Rep. Roger Williams, another Texas Republican, said he was undecided about how he would cast his vote. While Williams said he did not want to vote against providing aid to those seeking disaster relief, he does not vote in favor of debt limit increases or temporary government funding.

“I hate it,” Williams said. “It just goes against everything I do.”

Rep. Blake Farenthold is one Texas Republican who said he would vote in favor of the measure despite his vehement disagreement with rolling all three matters into one package.

“I’ve seen the devastation. I have no choice but to vote for it.” Farenthold said. “I’ve got constituents and friends and neighbors whose houses are destroyed and need the immediate FEMA aide so they have a place to stay.”

Vice President Mike Pence told the Texas congressional delegation at his official residence Thursday that “President Trump is anxious to sign the legislation,” referring to the Harvey-debt ceiling-CR package, according to a pool report.

“We do recognize that this is short-term emergency funding,” Pence said. “It’s the first, not the last, step. Each of us need to do all that we can to continue to support efforts for Texas.”

Democratic angst

The deal between Trump, Pelosi and Schumer also left some Democratic members wondering how they might explain what happened back home, given the dislike of the president by their respective bases.

When asked if working with Trump could result in unintended political implications for Democrats, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly said, “The answer is, of course, yes.”

“Our base is so riled up about Trump that any agreement of any kind like this will have to be very carefully presented,” the Virginia Democrat said. “It’s not that they want dysfunction but they have zero trust of this president.”

Pelosi on Thursday said it was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s offer to include the three-month continuing resolution with the disaster aid bill that gave Democrats the advantage, because they were able to negotiate a debt limit increase for the same amount of time. Deadlines for government funding and the debt ceiling are at the very end of September.

“It became persuasive when Mitch, the majority leader in the Senate, said, ‘I’m going to put the CR on it,’” Pelosi recalled. “That’s really what actually strengthened our hands for three months.

Increased strain

Back in the Senate after the meeting, McConnell, careful with his words, pointedly said the president had agreed with Democratic leadership but stopped short of criticizing the decision.

The strain between Trump and GOP congressional leadership has increased in recent weeks, particularly when Trump went after McConnell repeatedly over the summer for failing to deliver on a vote to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law.

The president regularly criticizes members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans — for failing to advance his legislative agenda.

Earlier on Wednesday, Speaker Paul D. Ryan called the notion of attaching a short-term debt limit extension to a bill relating to Harvey aid — what Trump ultimately agreed to — “ridiculous and disgraceful” and blamed Democratic leaders for playing politics.

Ryan told reporters during his weekly press conference Thursday the administration laid out the case that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers federal disaster relief, could run out of money within days, given the expedited rate in which victims of Harvey are applying for federal assistance.

The speaker credited that, in part, to more people being able to apply for aid through their smart phones.

Ryan said administration officials expressed concerns that covering the cost of cash payments for the disasters, especially with Hurricane Irma expected to severely affect Florida in the coming days, wouldn’t be possible without increasing the debt limit.

“Those are the concerns that trump everything else. No pun intended,” Ryan said.

Flores’ stance was shared by other Texas Republicans: He wanted to see disaster aid, the debt ceiling, and government funding be debated and voted on separately.

The Texas Republican and former chairman of the Republican Study Committee said that, as of Thursday, he was undecided about how he would vote.

“I’ve got to look at what’s inside the sandwich,” Flores said.

John T. Bennett contributed to this report.