Trump promises federal aid to storm-ravaged Texas

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has promised federal assistance to storm-ravaged parts of Texas, insisting Congress will act swiftly on a multibillion-dollar Hurricane Harvey recovery package as the government signaled current funds will be exhausted in the next few weeks.

“I think it’ll happen very quickly,” Trump said Monday of an aid package that could rival those enacted after Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. “It’ll go very fast.”

The president said existing disaster balances of more than $3 billion are sufficient for the immediate emergency but promised his administration will send lawmakers a request for far more to help Texas rebuild from the record storm in which catastrophic flooding has hit Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.

“The real number, which will be many billions of dollars, will go through Congress,” Trump said at a White House news conference.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., promised through a spokeswoman that “we will help those affected by this terrible disaster.”

The Republican-led Congress appears likely to add an immediate infusion of aid to a temporary spending bill to prevent a government shutdown Oct. 1, though congressional aides say the larger recovery package may take more time to develop. It’s way too early to guess how much will be required with floodwaters rising in Houston, people stranded in homes and the city essentially paralyzed.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster fund currently contains more than $3 billion, but FEMA on Monday said the response to Harvey is “quickly drawing down” disaster balances.

The upcoming disaster aid package is yet another item for a packed September agenda in Washington that includes preventing a government shutdown, making sure the government doesn’t default on its debt obligations, and laying the groundwork for overhauling the tax code.

Vice President Mike Pence told a Houston radio station Monday that given the “magnitude of the flooding” in the area that “it will be years coming back.” He said 22,000 people had already applied for federal aid but that as “many as a half-a-million people in Texas will be eligible for and applying for financial disaster assistance.”

“We remain very confident that with the reserves and with the support in the Congress, we’ll have the resources that we need,” Pence told KHOU radio.

Democrats promise they’ll help.

“Republicans must be ready to join Democrats in passing a timely relief bill that makes all necessary resources available,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Last week, Trump threatened a government shutdown if he didn’t get his $1.6 billion request to begin building a U.S.-Mexico border wall. But the need for disaster funding could make a shutdown showdown in September less likely since Trump may want to avoid a battle that could make him look like he’s prioritizing wall funding over flood victims.

Asked if the natural disaster would make him reconsider a shutdown, Trump said: “I think it has nothing to do with it, really. I think this is separate.”

FEMA announced Monday that it is prioritizing the Harvey response and holding off on less-urgent payments for earlier disasters to husband its money to make sure there is enough for immediate Harvey-related needs such as debris removal and temporary shelter for tens of thousands of Texans displaced from their homes.

Congress stepped forward with enormous aid packages in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012, though some GOP conservatives — including then-Indiana Rep. Pence — chafed at the price tag. And White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who will be responsible for preparing any disaster request for Trump, opposed a 2013 Sandy aid package as a South Carolina congressman, offering a plan to cut elsewhere in the budget to pay for it.

Mulvaney’s May budget release also proposed eliminating community block grants that are likely to be sought by the powerful Texas delegation to help with rebuilding efforts.

Lawmakers provided $110 billion to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Katrina, thanks in part to dogged efforts by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss. The Bush administration, politically scalded by criticism over its botched response to the tragedy, signed off on the aid.

But New York and New Jersey lawmakers seeking help over Superstorm Sandy encountered stiffer resistance. Many Republicans opposed the full $51 billion aid package, which included a $34 billion amendment by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., that included grants for housing and other repairs patterned after the Katrina response.

Some hard feelings linger on the part of New York and New Jersey Republicans, who had to battle to win help for their Democratic-leaning states in the bitter aftermath of the 2012 election.

“Despite my TX colleagues refusal to support aid in #SouthJersey time of need, I will support emergency disaster $$ for those impacted,” Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., wrote on Twitter on Monday.

Texas Republicans overwhelmingly voted against the final Sandy aid bill. The state’s two senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, opposed the aid package along with more than 20 House Republicans representing Texas.