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Congress Anticipates Looming Funding Fight Over Harvey Relief Aid


When the floodwaters in Texas eventually recede, the cleanup and rebuilding will begin. The vast majority of those efforts will be funded by the federal government. NPR's Scott Detrow reports that finding the funds might get tricky.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: There's no question Harvey recovery will cost billions. President Trump says no problem.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You're going to see very rapid action from Congress, certainly from the president. And you're going to get your funding.

DETROW: But funding Harvey recovery may not be that easy. There are a couple of reasons why. For one thing, Congress is about to enter a very busy stretch.

SARAH BINDER: Well, I sort of see it as everybody holding their breath.

DETROW: Sarah Binder is a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution.

BINDER: They have to fund the government lest it shut down. They have to raise the debt ceiling unless the government defaults.

DETROW: Government funding and debt ceiling deadlines have led to bitter brinksmanship in recent years, and President Trump has threatened to veto a funding bill if it doesn't include money for a border wall. So there's that backdrop. Now Congress needs to add approval of a tab of tens to possibly $100 billion.

EDWARD RICHARDS: The federal funds are absolutely essential to recovery.

DETROW: Edward Richards directs the Climate Change Law and Policy Project at Louisiana State University. He says there are three waves of federal funding after major hurricanes - initial FEMA grants to people and businesses to help them survive, followed by billions in claims from the National Flood Insurance Program.

RICHARDS: And so that is fairly swift and fairly certain money. It's the most reliable relief after a flood.

DETROW: Except for this - the whole flood insurance program will grind to a halt at the end of September unless Congress acts. And it's still carrying debt from Katrina, Rita and Sandy payments. House Speaker Paul Ryan insists the program will be reauthorized. The next wave of federal assistance comes in specific bills Congress passes after a big disaster. Here's where the politics get really tricky. After Sandy, 179 House Republicans voted no on a major aid package. So did several Republican senators, including Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Here he is on MSNBC.


TED CRUZ: The problem with that particular bill is it became a $50 billion bill that was filled with unrelated pork. Two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy.

DETROW: Fact-checkers take issue with that characterization. And many members of Congress aren't forgetting the Cruz vote, even Republicans like Long Island's Peter King. Here he is on Long Island's News 12.


PETER KING: Ted Cruz was one of the leaders trying to keep New York, New Jersey and Long Island from getting the funding we needed, and now he's the first one in asking for aid to Texas. But as badly as I feel toward Ted Cruz and what a hypocrite I think he is, I'm not going to take that out on the people of Texas.

BINDER: We always say where one stands - where you stand depends on where you sit.

DETROW: Sarah Binder says what that means is changing circumstances can change views, like when your state is the one that's flooded or when you go from being a conservative House rabble-rouser to vice president. Here's Mike Pence arguing against deficit spending for Hurricane Katrina relief in 2005.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Congress must ensure that a catastrophe of nature does not become a catastrophe of debt.

DETROW: And this week on Houston station KTRH.


PENCE: I think what you're going to see is that the national government and we anticipate the Congress are going to make the resources available to see Texas through the rescue operation, through the recovery.

DETROW: A major relief bill is likely to land on President Trump's desk. The big question is, how much does it affect all the other major debates that will be happening at the same time and with the same deadlines? Scott Detrow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.