House approves $7.85 billion in Harvey relief

11:18 am

By Mike DeBonis, Kelsey Snell and Elise Viebeck / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump wants Congress to fund the government for three months and raise the debt ceiling for the same amount of time, defying leaders from his own party and potentially giving Democrats leverage in debates over immigration, health care and federal spending.

Trump made his position clear at a White House meeting with congressional leaders on Wednesday, overruling top Republicans.

“In the meeting, the President and Congressional leadership agreed to pass aid for Harvey, an extension of the debt limit, and a continuing resolution both to December 15, all together,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a joint statement. “Both sides have every intention of avoiding default in December and look forward to working together on the many issues before us.”

The president’s decision, confirmed by Republicans, came barely an hour after House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., panned the idea of a brief debt hike, accusing Democrats of “playing politics” with much needed Harvey relief by trying to create pressure for their agenda. Democrats believe this extension into December would increase their leverage on Republicans to secure stabilization funds for health-care markets and resolve the legal status of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.

In their statement, Schumer and Pelosi also called on Congress to pass protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, after Trump rescinded an executive order signed by former president Barack Obama that created a program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, that allowed them to stay in the country without fear of deportation.

“As Democratic leaders, we also made it clear that we strongly believe the DREAM Act must come to the floor and pass as soon as possible and we will not rest until we get this done,” Schumer and Pelosi stated.

The meeting took place just as the House approved a $7.85 billion aid package for victims of Hurricane Harvey, its first major order of business following the August recess and Congress’s first step toward fulfilling President Trump’s promise of relief for South Texas.

The measure providing $7.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $450 million for a disaster loan program for small businesses passed 419-3 with 12 representatives not voting. Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., Justin Amash, R-Mich., and Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., voted no. It now moves to the Senate, where leaders plan to hold a vote by the end of the week.

The House bill does not include language to raise the debt ceiling ahead of a late-September deadline, a relief to conservatives who oppose linking the two issues. But that doesn’t mean the lower chamber will ultimately avoid such a vote: Senate Republican leaders said they plan to attach a debt-ceiling hike to Harvey aid despite conservative opposition.

Democratic leaders had offered support for a combined package on Wednesday provided it only raises the debt ceiling for three months, a plan that would allow the minority party to maintain leverage on issues like government spending, health care and protections for immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, known as “dreamers,” before the end of the year.

“Given Republican difficulty in finding the votes for their plan, we believe this proposal offers a bipartisan path forward to ensure prompt delivery of Harvey aid as well as avoiding a default, while both sides work together to address government funding, dreamers, and health care,” Schumer and Pelosi said in a statement Wednesday.

Democrats view the debt limit as a rare opportunity for leverage in budget and spending talks expected to occur later this year, especially since Republicans typically have been unable to deliver enough votes to pass a borrowing increase or spending bill on their own.

Ryan called the offer a “ridiculous idea” and accused Democrats of trying to take advantage of the debt-ceiling deadline just as another storm – Hurricane Irma – barrels toward the coast of Florida.

“Let’s just think about this: We’ve got all this devastation in Texas. We’ve got another unprecedented hurricane about to hit Florida, and they want to play politics with the debt ceiling? … I think that’s ridiculous and disgraceful that they want to play politics with the debt ceiling at this moment when we have fellow citizens in need, to respond to these hurricanes so we do not strand them,” Ryan told a news conference on Wednesday.

Emergency relief is one of at least half a dozen must-pass items on Congress’s agenda this month. Lawmakers are under pressure to avoid a government shutdown and a U.S. debt default while reauthorizing critical programs like the Federal Aviation Administration and extending funds for health insurance for about 9 million children.

Trump added another matter to the pile Tuesday when he moved to rescind an executive order granting work permits to dreamers, setting a six-month deadline for Congress to act on a replacement.

Avoiding a government shutdown will be a difficult task. Government spending bills, like most other legislation, need 60 votes to pass the Senate. Republicans control 52 seats, meaning that they will have to turn to Democrats to provide at least eight votes to avert a government shutdown.

Conservatives worry that Democrats plan to demand increased spending on domestic priorities, like education and low-income assistance, in exchange for their votes. Schumer and Pelosi have also signaled that they will not vote for any funds to help pay for Trump’s long-promised wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, was among those who warned that Democrats’ short-term debt limit request could threaten Republican plans to cut spending.

“Obviously getting a [continuing resolution] and the debt ceiling to not come due at the same time would be the most prudent fiscal decision we could make,” Meadows told reporters.

The Freedom Caucus met Tuesday evening but did not adopt an official position to oppose an aid bill for Hurricane Harvey victims if it includes an increase in the federal debt limit – something that could complicate plans to deal with the two issues in tandem. But Meadows said there was “overwhelming” opposition to doing so and that the issue could be revisited if the Senate moves to attach a debt provision.

“It’s very clear that the majority of our members feel like attaching the debt ceiling – a clean debt ceiling without structural reforms – to Harvey relief is not something that they would support,” he said. “At the same time, we felt like it’s important that we deal with the Harvey relief.” He predicted Tuesday night that “all, or the majority of our members” would vote for the clean relief bill Wednesday morning.

If the group decides to vote against the bill, it could exacerbate tensions among House Republicans and raise the specter that the bill could pass without a majority of the majority party — violating an informal rule that Ryan had pledged to adhere to when he became speaker in 2015.

The Freedom Caucus did adopt a position for a favored approach to reforming the debt ceiling: raising it initially, but including a federal spending cap pegged to a fixed percentage of the gross domestic product that would decrease over time. “We’re willing to increase the debt ceiling if we actually address the underlying problem, namely the $20 trillion debt,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a Freedom Caucus leader.

The clash could erode conservatives’ confidence in Ryan ahead of a crucial stretch in the legislative calendar.

Specifically, it raised the possibility that most House Republicans could oppose a combined bill, violating an informal rule dictating that only measures supported by a majority of GOP members be brought to a vote.

Meadows, who led an effort to oust Ryan’s predecessor, John A. Boehner, declined to address what the consequences would be if House leaders bring forth a combined bill. But he said that he expected that bill to pass.

“It will probably pass with a majority of Democrats and enough Republicans to get it across the finish line,” he said, but added that the Freedom Caucus wanted to send a message to the public: “There’s a path to get it done with a [Republican] majority in the Senate and the House and yet we’re not doing that. Therein is the problem.”

In a sign that steps must be taken to appease skeptical House Republicans, a key Houston-area lawmaker floated a proposal that would attach language proposing a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget to the Republican budget resolution — a separate piece of legislation that could see a House vote this month.

Rep. John Abney Culberson, R-Texas, whose west Houston district has been devastated by flooding, said that conservatives could vote for a debt-limit increase in good conscience if they know a major spending reform is in the offing.

“Who could be opposed to a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution?” he said. “The U.S. cannot default on our debt — that’s just not acceptable. This is a solution that will work.”

While he said his proposal would offer a “clear path” to a constitutional amendment, the process set out under Article V of the Constitution would ultimately require ratification from three-fourths of states — a tall order, to say the least.

Republican leaders said the House would not leave Washington until Harvey relief is passed, leaving open the possibility of Saturday votes. “We will not leave until we get this done,” Ryan said.

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