Hurricane Harvey tore into Texas and its winds continued to blow all the way to Washington, DC.
Congress returns to town Tuesday and now topping its list of to-dos is passage of legislation to add billions more in funding to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover soaring costs to build after the ravages of one of history’s worst hurricanes in Texas.
President Trump has called for $7.9 billion in increased funding, even though Texas Governor Greg Abbott predicts it will require as much as $180 billion to recover what was lost or damaged in Houston, Corpus Christie, Beaumont and other Southeast Texas communities.
The increased funding comes as Congress must find a way to approve legislation raising the US debt ceiling and a funding measure to keep the federal government’s doors open when the new fiscal year begins October 1. Those already prickly political issues were complicated when Trump said he was willing to accept a government shutdown to get a down payment on funding of his border wall.
Trump seems to have backed off the border wall threat under the cover of pressing for immediate relief funding to hard-hit Texas and parts of Louisiana, which he visited twice since the hurricane made landfall August 25.
Even though there is no direct connection between increased FEMA funding and raising the debt ceiling, which reflects past federal spending, hurricane victim relief may give GOP congressional leaders the leverage they need to push through both measures without a lot of political infighting, especially from the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Both Texas senators, who have bona fide conservative credentials, have expressed support for more FEMA funding. Relief aid would be touted by Trump and other politicians as a significant legislative achievement.
If that happened, there would be would more space – and perhaps legislative days – for what are expected to be intense political negotiations over spending for the next fiscal year. The Trump administration has called for massive budget cuts in many federal agencies – including FEMA, but those cuts may not have much political traction, even among many Republicans.
Instead, GOP leaders may try to raise the stakes for congressional Democrats by threatening to cut back on spending for health care for children to gain political concessions on revisions to the Affordable Care Act and possibly other political objectives. There are bipartisan Capitol Hill discussions occurring on ways to repair, as opposed to repeal, Obamacare, which could become part of the budget conversation.
Congressional spending decisions rarely follow a straight line and the hard negotiating never occurs in public view. While budget negotiators may ignore Trump’s budget outline, there are less likely to dismiss the President’s push for major tax cuts. While there also is willingness and even preliminary discussion of a bipartisan tax reform measure, agreement is virtually impossible before the end of September when some kind of a spending bill must pass. That suggests Congress will resort once again to some kind of continuing resolution, perhaps to the end of the year, to allow more time for the tax issue to ferment – and the hurricane relief bill to grow.
All that is murky enough political water, but it will get murkier. Trump will announce his decision to roll back the Obama-era decision to grant work permits to the children of undocumented immigrants, possibly with a 6-month delay to give Congress a chance to act. While a number of states have threatened to sue if the so-called Dreamers program isn’t scrapped, many GOP congressional leaders, including Speaker Paul Ryan, have expressed support for legislation that would maintain the program.
The other wild card that could blow up budget talks is the heightening war of words between the United States and North Korea over its nuclear weapon capability. Diplomatic options seem to be dwindling and some kind of military action is becoming more probable, despite predictions of enormous collateral damage. At a minimum, the United States would need to reinforce its manpower levels in Asia. There are reports military units already have been put on notice. As we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan – and earlier in Vietnam, fighting on the ground and dropping bombs from the sky is budget-busting expensive.
It is hard to imagine how the political situation in Washington, DC could get much worse. Well, its name is Irma and it may be heading to Florida coast later this week.