The White House as soon as Wednesday will ask Congress to authorize almost $30 billion in new funding to address recent natural disasters, a senior administration official said, adding to the costly tally from three deadly hurricanes that have devastated Puerto Rico and parts of Texas and Florida in recent weeks.
The funding request includes $12.77 billion in disaster recovery funds, $577 million to address wildfires, and $15 billion to fund the flood insurance program. It is not expected to seek budget cuts to offset the new spending. In early September, Congress authorized $7.9 billion in disaster relief funding to deal with damage caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but the White House said it would eventually need to come back and seek more assistance.
In late September, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, prompting the White House to seek new funds even faster. Trump visited the U.S. territory on Tuesday and accused the island of causing budget problems for the government.
“You have thrown our budget a little out of whack, because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico and that’s fine,” Trump said during his visit.
The White House and congressional Republicans have taken a much different approach in response to the recent hurricanes than they tried to take during past storms, when some fiscal conservatives opposed new disaster relief money that wasn’t offset by spending cuts in other areas. Trump sought quick relief in response to Harvey, which hit Texas, and Irma, which hit Florida, and he committed to completely rebuilding both states.
The response to devastation in Puerto Rico has been different. Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 with winds of about 175 mph, knocking out power throughout the island and causing extreme damage to the territory’s infrastructure. In late September, in a series of Twitter posts, Trump said the island was already in disrepair before the storm, saddled with large amounts of debt. He wrote that “Big decisions will have to be made as to the cost of its rebuilding!”
Officials from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are pushing the Trump administration and Congress to prepare a comprehensive rebuilding plan for the island territories that in the case of Puerto Rico also would address several longer-term fiscal concerns. One Puerto Rican legislator visiting Washington this week even suggested that it could be called the “Trump Plan.”
The island’s finances are under the control of a federal oversight board, its electric company is bankrupt and a “Medicaid cliff” anticipated next spring could jeopardize health-care funding for island residents.
But congressional leaders have said that any debate on a more comprehensive recovery plan won’t occur for several more weeks until the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies complete a full assessment of the territories’ rebuilding needs.
Building political support for such a plan may be tricky, given that both territories have only nonvoting House members — a Democrat from the Virgin Islands and a Republican from Puerto Rico. And yet, Puerto Rico especially has a network of lawmakers in both parties who either were born on the island, own property there, or represent districts or states with large Puerto Rican voting blocs.
Lawmakers from some states may feel compelled to support a rescue plan to stave off a potential mass exodus of Puerto Rican residents. One Puerto Rico legislator this week predicted that up to 200,000 island residents may at least temporarily relocate to live with family in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida and North Carolina.
The $15 billion in new borrowing authority for the National Flood Insurance Program could be a complication, especially for House conservatives who have long pushed for reforms to the program and have resisted past efforts to raise its debt limit.
Even before Harvey, Irma and Maria, the program owed more than $24 billion to the U.S. treasury, inching up on a $30 billion borrowing cap. Now, according to an official familiar with the status of the program, hurricane claims mean that limit could be breached by the last week of October.
Among those pushing for reforms is the powerful chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), who has pushed legislation that would open up the flood insurance market to private competition. But lawmakers representing flood-prone areas, both Republican and Democrat, have been wary of those efforts -- fearing that they could mean higher premiums for their constituents.
Just last week, language allowing for more privatization of the market was included in a must-pass House bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration and extending tax relief to disaster victims -- only to be stripped out in the Senate.
"It makes common sense," Hensarling said last week. "As people begin to rebuild their homes after these hurricanes it's important that they start having more affordable options."
On Tuesday, Hensarling declined to comment pending the official White House request for more borrowing authority. The official familiar with the program said the White House request would include reforms but did not specify what they might be.
At least one House Republican representing a district recently hit by disaster said he would have little patience for any debate that would threaten the flood insurance program's viability.
"We have not only a legal but a moral obligation to pay those claims," said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), who represents the south Texas district where Harvey made landfall. "That being said, I sure would like to see some reforms in there because we don't want to continue doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result."
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Tuesday that he was confident that the package would win broad support in the House, including from past critics of the flood insurance program.
"Remember, this is emergency money," he said. "You've got to deal with the problem, so I think we'll be able to get this done."