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White House seeks over $30B for disaster aid, Afghan refugees

The administration is seeking roughly $24 billion for disaster relief and $6.4 billion to support the relocation of tens of thousands of Afghans

Shalanda D. Young, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, arrives for a House Budget Committee hearing on June 9, 2021.
Shalanda D. Young, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, arrives for a House Budget Committee hearing on June 9, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Biden administration is preparing to ask Congress to include over $30 billion for hurricane and wildfire relief and resettlement of Afghan refugees in the United States in a short-term stopgap funding bill appropriators are prepping to try to avert a partial government shutdown after Sept. 30.

The Office of Management and Budget said Tuesday that more than $14 billion is needed to pay for unmet needs from recent natural disasters including hurricanes Laura and Delta last fall and wildfires that occurred before Hurricane Ida struck Louisiana recently.

Administration officials told reporters on a background call that the money would cover disasters that took place over the past 18 months and would include agricultural and drought assistance and highway repairs, among other needs.

Ida’s impacts reached as far north as New York and New Jersey. The budget office’s acting director, Shalanda D. Young, wrote in a blog post that the massive storm will “significantly increase the need for further disaster response funding,” including “at least” $10 billion more just for Ida recovery efforts.

Young wrote that Ida-related funding should be provided for highway repairs and transit agencies, small-business disaster loans, block grants for housing and infrastructure development and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s fund for major disasters.

Late last week, President Joe Biden visited Louisiana, where he promised local officials he’d “have your backs.” Biden was in New York and New Jersey on Tuesday to survey damages from Ida.

On top of roughly $24 billion for disaster relief, the administration wants lawmakers to add $6.4 billion to support the relocation of tens of thousands of Afghans who helped the U.S. during its two decades of military conflict in Afghanistan.

“This operation has spanned the globe, beginning with moving evacuees from Afghanistan to third-country transit hubs on military air and charter flights,” Young wrote in the blog post. “At transit hubs, evacuees are housed on U.S. bases, where they undergo biometric and biographic security screenings before they are allowed into the United States.”

Young said evacuees also receive “extensive COVID-19 and other public health precautions” and are resettled in the United States with the help of government-funded nongovernmental organizations.

The OMB said the majority of the requested funds are for the Defense and State departments to support processing sites overseas and in the United States and transportation between processing sites.

The funding request also includes support for humanitarian assistance to Afghans in the region who are at risk provided through the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development. Some of the funding also would provide Afghans who are resettled with public health screenings and vaccinations and “full resettlement resources and a path to enable them to build successful new lives here,” according to the blog.

An administration official said the money would support ongoing U.S. operations and plans for as many as 65,000 Afghan refugees to arrive in the U.S. by the end of this month, and up to 30,000 more over the next 12 months.

Overall, the breakdown of Afghan refugee aid requested is as follows, according to administration officials:

  •     $2.4 billion for the Pentagon for resettlement efforts as well as military personnel costs.
  •     $1.7 billion for Department of Health and Human Services refugee benefits.
  •     $1.3 billion for State Department resettlement operations.
  •     $815 million for USAID humanitarian assistance.
  •     $193 million for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services processing costs.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer endorsed the funding request in a statement Tuesday, saying his chamber “will begin working with Republicans to enact this emergency relief by the end of September” in order to get aid out quickly.

‘Anomalies’ list

The budget office is also requesting a 34-page list of funding “anomalies” in the continuing resolution, or deviations from simple extensions of funding provided in appropriations last year for fiscal 2021.

Young wrote in her blog post that while she expects the CR to be a “short-term” measure, anomalies are needed to ensure the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has enough money to meet demand stemming from a new three-digit phone number, for instance. Another would extend expiring Bureau of Reclamation authorities “to effectively carry out drought response.”

The White House is seeking authority, which is typically granted in stopgap bills, for FEMA to access all of its regular annual disaster relief fund allotment — more than $17 billion in fiscal 2021 — up front, rather than prorated for the length of the CR. That should help take care of some initial disaster relief needs on top of existing balances.

And the National Flood Insurance Program needs extending beyond Sept. 30, the OMB said, or it won’t be able to renew or sell new policies.

Other requested anomalies include, among others:

  • A higher rate of funding for Census Bureau programs, after fiscal 2021 appropriations relief on prior-year balances that are now depleted.
  • More money for the Pentagon to purchase semiconductors from a sole-source vendor that’s being sold before a Dec. 15, 2021, contracting deadline for a “lifetime buy.”
  • More funding for the White House to conduct COVID-19 “management and testing” within its offices, and for the offices and staff of former presidents including “a $0.6 million increase for the statutorily-required pension and office support costs of the newest former President’s office.”
  • Authorization language for the Department of Homeland Security to use certain enforcement funds for the costs of reunifying families separated at the border during the four years former President Donald Trump was in office.
  • A higher rate of funding for USCIS to process refugee applications, and for the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement.
  • Money to fund cruise ship sanitation as a lack of fee revenue during the pandemic impacted inspection programs.

Other requested fixes are technical, correcting errors in prior laws. For example, the administration identified a need flagged by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to correct a provision that could deny trustees in Chapter 7 bankruptcy cases, where debtors’ assets are sold to pay their creditors, their $60 per-case fee.

In addition, the White House wants Congress to consider adding a host of authorization extensions to the CR, ranging from Agriculture Department livestock reporting requirements to Federal Aviation Administration authority “to require the use of fluorinated chemicals to meet the agency’s performance standards for firefighting materials.”

None of the dozen annual appropriations bills have become law, with only a few weeks before the end of the fiscal year.

The stopgap bill, expected to run into November or December, would be intended to buy lawmakers time to reach a deal on fiscal 2022 funding. Democrats and Republicans are still at loggerheads over the split between defense and nondefense accounts and whether the overall $1.5 trillion figure sought by the White House and Democratic leaders is too high.

Whither the debt ceiling?

Another matter that may need to be dealt with shortly is the statutory debt ceiling, as the Treasury Department is rapidly running out of means to stay within its $28.4 trillion borrowing cap. Top Democrats have considered adding a debt ceiling suspension to the CR, but 46 Senate Republicans have said they won’t support such a measure, which bodes ill since 60 votes are needed to pass the measure in that chamber.

Analysts at Wrightson ICAP, an investment advisory firm, said Monday that while Treasury may be able to make the money last until the end of October, they expect “Treasury would circle a date in early to mid-October as the critical deadline for debt ceiling action by Congress.”

Lawmakers in both chambers are currently scheduled to be in recess the week of Oct. 11.

Administration officials wouldn’t comment on their strategy for addressing the debt ceiling in their call about stopgap funds and disaster relief on Tuesday. “We fully expect Congress to act promptly to suspend the debt limit,” an official said. “We expect them to do that in a bipartisan way.”

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