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Disaster relief caught in the supplemental spending crossfire

Emergency funding requests pile up as FEMA faces summer shortfall, House GOP pushback

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito speaks to reporters during Senate Republicans’ news conference in the Ohio Clock Corridor in the Capitol on May 31.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito speaks to reporters during Senate Republicans’ news conference in the Ohio Clock Corridor in the Capitol on May 31. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

With the ink barely dry on the new budget caps set by the debt ceiling law, the House and Senate are already tied in knots over an emergency spending package to supplement the numbers in that bipartisan deal. The main driver is military aid to Ukraine, although most now believe that can wait for the fall.

There’s just one problem: The government’s main disaster relief fund is expected to run out of money in August, while Congress is on its summer break.

Until the debt limit fight laid bare the divide between House Republicans, who think the new spending caps are too generous, and senators who want to spend more on everything from Ukraine to stopping the flow of fentanyl, it seemed likely that a summer supplemental was in the cards. 

Back in April, Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Deanne Criswell warned House appropriators that the disaster relief fund was facing a shortfall of up to $12 billion as soon as July.

“We are putting planning measures in place to make sure that we can continue to respond to catastrophic events while we work with Congress and the administration on a potential supplemental to make sure that we have enough funding to support the ongoing recovery efforts that we are facing right now,” Criswell told the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee on April 18.

The agency’s latest monthly report, which runs through May, shows a slightly improved financial picture. But nonetheless, FEMA is expected to burn through all its disaster relief money sometime in August and eventually run up a $10 billion deficit by the end of September. 

As part of a typical “anomaly” in stopgap funding legislation that lawmakers will likely need to pass by Sept. 30, FEMA should get a nearly $20 billion cash infusion.

But that could be too late with hurricane season on the horizon and tens of billions of dollars already committed to prior disasters, ranging from New Mexico wildfires to Hurricane Maria cleanup in the U.S. Virgin Islands to COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.

Despite Criswell’s commentary that a supplemental request was forthcoming, there’s been no movement on that front as the White House and Congress have been tied up, until this month, in the battle over the debt ceiling and fiscal 2024 appropriations.

The Office of Management and Budget, which has final say over such requests, had no comment. FEMA Press Secretary Jeremy M. Edwards said in a statement that the administration and Congress are aware of the projected disaster aid deficit and that they continue to work to ensure the fund has “the resources available to support survivors and communities in their time of need.”

Lawmakers hoping to get some additional clarity may have to wait a little longer. Criswell’s scheduled Tuesday testimony before a House Homeland Security panel subcommittee was postponed Monday afternoon.

‘Lot of different ideas’

Lawmakers could initiate their own disaster relief measure without a formal administration request. However, any supplemental would likely attract a variety of unrelated provisions as a must-pass bill, a fact exacerbated by the caps in the debt ceiling law that members on both sides of the aisle believe are inadequate.

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., the chairman of the Homeland Security spending panel, acknowledged the likelihood that members will see a disaster supplemental as a potential landing spot for other priorities. 

“I think there’s a lot of different people who have a lot of different ideas for a supplemental,” he said. “Generally, we find a way to come together around disaster supplementals, but certainly if there is something moving, people will have different ideas of what should go on it.”  

During and after debate on the debt limit bill, Republican senators have called for more defense spending through a supplemental, a request that Speaker Kevin McCarthy has dismissed, at least for now.

[Deeper spending cuts may be in play to break House deadlock]

A GOP aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Republican senators who want to increase defense spending above the cap would likely eye a potential disaster relief supplemental as a way to do so. 

Prior to the debt limit bill, the aide said there had been an appetite in the Senate for a supplemental including disaster relief and money to help stem the flow of fentanyl over the border. However, despite the necessity of increasing the disaster relief fund, the aide said the path forward is now clouded as a summer supplemental including defense funding would likely be a nonstarter in the House. 

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., a senior Appropriations Committee member, said that while a disaster relief supplemental could potentially pass the Senate, he isn’t sure it could pass the House. 

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., the Labor-HHS-Education ranking member, said while she understood the House’s anti-supplemental attitudes, disaster relief is a necessity. 

“I get it, but when your area is hit by a natural disaster, you see the light,” said Capito, who was the top Republican on the Homeland Security spending panel in the last Congress. 

Sen. Katie Britt, R-Ala., the current ranking member of the Homeland Security panel, said Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., and ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, are working to find a path forward to address the coming shortfall. 

Britt said her experience surviving a 2011 tornado and her state’s severe weather make disaster relief a top priority for her. 

“I think it’s incredibly important, particularly as we approach hurricane season, that we make sure the government can respond swiftly and compassionately when a storm hits to help get communities and families back on their feet,” she said. 

Border funds

Along with the disaster relief funding, some lawmakers are also looking for emergency supplemental resources for the border. 

Tae Johnson, the acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement director, said at an April hearing that he anticipated the need for at least $485 million in additional resources for the border after the end of the pandemic-era Title 42 immigration policy.  

“We were already looking at a $485 million shortfall,” Johnson told the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. “We’ve asked for funding to cure that hole. And we’re certainly anticipating some additional transportation and, you know, airframe requirements as a result of the end of Title 42.” 

Murphy said more border funding is necessary, although he didn’t specify a time frame for that funding. “There’s obviously been an exceptional number of presentations at the border for most of the year, and those come with extraordinary costs,” he said. 

The GOP aide said Republicans would want any supplemental for the border to include security and enforcement funding, not funding solely for the nongovernmental organizations that provide shelter and transport migrants. 

In each of the past two fiscal years, lawmakers have attached supplemental spending packages to stopgap funding laws enacted to avert a partial government shutdown after Sept. 30. But that was before the House GOP takeover.

Last week, McCarthy didn’t totally rule out more aid to Ukraine. But he said it was going to take some convincing.

“If and when someone thinks they need more resources for Ukraine, you just don’t write a bill. You come to the members of Congress,” he said. “You explain to them what we did with the money that was already appropriated, what did we achieve by it, what is the plan for victory and what resources do you need to be able to achieve that plan. We just don’t throw money at things.”

In the interim, it’s not yet clear how FEMA is going to respond to natural disasters over the summer — especially if lawmakers take the month of August off.

Paul M. Krawzak and David Lerman contributed to this report.

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