House lawmakers unveiled a bill Tuesday night that would provide $36.5 billion in emergency funding for hurricane and wildfire relief requested by the Trump administration.
With Congress under pressure to provide urgent help to storm victims in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, the House measure includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund, as well as $16 billion to replenish the nation’s flood insurance program.
The FEMA funding includes a provision that would give Puerto Rico access to $4.9 billion in low-interest Treasury loans so it doesn’t run out of cash as the island recovers. That funding is needed to help the territory pay government salaries and other expenses after Oct. 31. The bill is expected to be voted on by the full House later this week and then taken up by the Senate as early as next week.
“These funds are vital right now, in the near term, to get the aid where it is needed most,” House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey said in a statement. “However, the recovery in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Texas and Florida will be ongoing, and more assistance will be required in the near future.”
But Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, who heads the conservative Republican Study Committee, said he is disappointed the measure doesn’t include any spending cuts to offset the disaster funding and that he is still trying to decide whether to vote for it.
“This is a very frustrating place,” he said Wednesday.
Congress needs to act quickly, particularly when it comes to flood insurance. The National Flood Insurance Program needs additional funding to cover claims from all the recent storms.
The bill will be brought to a vote as soon as Thursday under a fast-track procedure that will require Democratic votes to pass. An aide to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said she is still reviewing the measure.
The aide said Pelosi fought for two items included in the bill: loans for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, also suffering from hurricane damage, and $1 billion in disaster funds over the White House request in light of California wildfires. The bill includes no flood insurance policy changes, which the aide said is a victory, after Republicans had discussed revisions to the program.
Several lawmakers from both parties said they’d support the measure.
Texas Republican Blake Farenthold said: “They don’t have to sell me on that one.”
Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, said disaster victims deserve help from the federal government. “This package provides critical public and individual disaster assistance, flood insurance aid, liquidity for Puerto Rico’s government, and help for communities devastated by wildfires,” she said in a statement.
The loan authority for Puerto Rico is also a needed financial lifeline for the U.S. territory of 3.4 million people that’s been operating in bankruptcy since May, which makes it difficult for the government to borrow on its own.
Averting a Shutdown
With the island still recovering from the storm, much of the economy there has ground to a halt, radically curtailing the government’s tax collections. Puerto Rico’s treasury secretary, Raul Maldonado, said last week that the territory faces a government shutdown on Oct. 31 that would halt its hurricane recovery efforts if Congress doesn’t intervene.
The package includes a $150 million advance to cover a matching-funds requirement from the commonwealth, an administration official said. It would be available for easing short-term expenses such as payroll and pension payments, though not for debt service on bonds.
The devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria is threatening to exacerbate the financial crisis that had already pushed the island into a series of record-setting defaults on its $74 billion of debt. The scale of the damage, which has left most of the island without electricity almost three weeks after the storm, has caused Puerto Rico bond prices to tumble as investors speculate they’re likely to recoup even less of their investments.