For obvious reasons, no politician is going to say out loud that Hurricane Harvey was a fortuitous event that helped Washington avoid what was sure looking like a fiscal meltdown in September. But it’s no secret that congressional leaders quickly saw funding for Harvey relief and recovery as a battering ram to push a controversial debt limit and appropriations bill through Congress. With the president eager to posture as a boon companion to hard-pressed emergency-response personnel, and Texas’s huge conservative GOP congressional delegation taking a lot of the wind out of the usual right-wing fiscal carping, the big storm made for much clearer skies in our nation’s capital.
But it’s now beginning to appear that Harvey’s helpful drain on public resources is happening just a bit too fast for Washington’s comfort, as Politico explains:
GOP leaders had tentatively laid plans to pair a popular disaster relief package with a tough vote to raise the debt ceiling and keep the government open at month’s end. But their strategy is already running into headwinds, as the damage from the storm appears far too large for Congress to wait weeks to act.
FEMA’s $1.1 billion cushion for dealing with disasters could very quickly be depleted by recovery costs that could dwarf even those associated with Hurricane Katrina. So it’s not clear the agency or the tens of thousands of people already needing help can wait around for Congress to get its act together on all the many, many things it wants to toss into the big pot of stew that is expected to reach a simmer very near the end of September, when appropriations and debt capacity both run out. So the Republicans who run the federal government are now looking for a Plan B:
Other ideas are also being considered to get Washington safely through September. Three GOP leadership sources said another possibility includes Congress passing two Harvey assistance bills next month: a small amount of new FEMA funds in early September and then another one in late September tied to debt ceiling legislation.
That approach could get tricky, of course. The first bill would have to reliably cover hard-to-estimate short-term needs. But if it’s too generous, the power of the second bill to drag the late-September fiscal package across the line will be dangerously diminished.
The good news for congressional leaders is that the president appears to have agreed to let a short-term appropriations bill go through without border-wall funding. Since the bill is expected to be a continuing resolution that expires in December or January, Trump will get to pitch a border-wall fit soon enough.
But if there are too many changes in the plan to let Harvey funding wrap a protective cloak around the rest of the September fiscal agenda, Trump and other potential hostage takers could become restive. And the fortuitously avoided risk of a government shutdown or debt default crisis could come flooding right back like a recurring nightmare.