Before they do anything else of consequence, House Republicans plan to take up a Trump administration request for nearly $8 billion in initial relief money for Texas and Louisiana, the first in what leading lawmakers expect will be multiple tranches of aid for recovery and reconstruction totaling as much as $100 billion or higher. Democrats have signaled no opposition, and conservatives who a few years ago opposed a relief package after Superstorm Sandy have said they’re fine with an emergency spending package as long as it doesn’t balloon into a legislative pork project. (It helps that many of those one-time critics are the Texas Republicans now seeking the money.)
“It’s an easy bill to pass, honestly,” said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a top House appropriator.
Tragedies often, but not always, have this kind of impact. Increasingly, they seem like the only effective antidote to political rancor. And even then, the remedy wears off quicker and quicker.
Indeed, nobody expects the Harvey effect to last very long. Republicans are responding to the disaster not by striking lasting compromises to resolve the various impasses, but by punting the fights to December and buying more time to figure out a resolution. GOP leaders had already planned to put off a debate over an omnibus spending bill and try instead to pass a three-month continuing resolution. Now they have added reason to set aside Trump’s demand for a down payment on funding for a Southern border wall, over which he had threatened a government shutdown in the days before the storm hit. One senior House GOP aide told me that, in Harvey’s wake, a shutdown fight over the wall was “the last thing we need.”
Republican lawmakers and aides also acknowledged that the storm meant that Congress was even more likely to pass a straightforward extension of federal flood insurance rather than debate a more contentious proposal from Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. Hensarling’s legislation, which his committee narrowly approved in July, would open up the program to private competition and faced opposition not only from Democrats but many Republicans as well. “The Senate is not really on board with the Hensarling approach,” the GOP aide said.
The debt ceiling remains a thorny issue for Republicans, who are divided between those who want to dispense with an increase quickly and those on the right who believe the party must attach spending reforms to any additional borrowing authority—a demand the GOP made for a time under former President Barack Obama. “After six or seven years, how many times are Republicans in the House supposed to be looking the other way and just giving a clean, blank check every year?” asked Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, which represents the largest bloc of conservatives in Congress. “Why is Congress even relevant if this is just a rubber-stamp each year without any kind of serious, long-term reform?”