Disaster funding question bedevils GOP

By Emma Dumain | 09/20/2023 06:27 AM EDT

Republicans acknowledge that aid is needed for disaster-stricken states. They don’t know how to get there.

Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.).

Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.) is hoping Congress approves supplemental funding for disasters. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

As House Republicans struggle to pass a stopgap spending bill ahead of a Sept. 30 deadline, they’re also grappling with another problem: what to do about disaster aid.

It’s no small thing. Multiple states across the country are reeling from hurricanes, wildfires and extreme flooding and are desperately in need of help. Many of those disaster-stricken districts are represented by Republicans.

And yet the Republican-led short-term spending bill, which GOP leaders pulled from consideration Tuesday, didn’t provide the type of disaster money many lawmakers feel is needed. Another one in the works may not either.


Some Republicans are starting to grumble. Florida Rep. Kat Cammack said the funding in the stopgap spending bill, known as a continuing resolution, was insufficient.

“As someone whose district took a direct hit from [Hurricane Idalia], and we’re sustaining not only major commercial and residential losses but agriculture losses, as well, that aren’t even covered under [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], that right there is a reason for people in my position to question how effective this CR is actually going to be,” she told E&E News. She is sponsoring a stand-alone disaster aid bill.

Even though Republicans agree with Democrats that the government should help pay for disaster relief efforts, the party has no cohesive plan, strategy or message on how to achieve that.

That lack of clarity comes at a perilous time for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, which will soon be bankrupt without congressional approval of its requested $20 billion, at least.

“FEMA’s running out of money,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.). “We have emergency management directors around the country who have to worry about whether the money is there to help respond, recover and rebuild, and payments are going to be delayed.”

And that sum is in addition to the $16 billion the Biden administration has requested to make sure states suffering from recent devastation — wildfires in Hawaii, flooding in Vermont and a hurricane in Florida — are able to recover swiftly.

To make matters worse, the FEMA administrator warned lawmakers Tuesday that a government shutdown Oct. 1 would make it more challenging to respond to disasters, which are increasing in severity and frequency due to climate change. House Republicans currently have no plan to avoid a shutdown, either.

‘Are you familiar with how a CR works?’

House GOP leaders are adamant that they are committed to making sure disaster-ravaged communities aren’t left behind amid funding talks over what to include and what to leave on the cutting-room floor.

“You should not be holding disaster victims hostage right now as a result of what’s going on right now; it’s not right,” Rep. Garret Graves, a Louisiana Republican, told reporters Tuesday morning. “I’ll just say it again: Not addressing the needs of victims, that’s not an option. That needs to be a part of a plan, part of a solution.”

He defended the deal from the hard-line House Freedom Caucus and moderate Main Street Caucus to exempt FEMA from across-the-board spending cuts in the 31-day continuing resolution, while also giving it access to its baseline, $20 billion replenishment request. Disaster funding is exempt from discretionary spending caps.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) chastised a reporter for asking how he planned to address disaster relief.

“Are you familiar with how a CR works?” he said. “So in a CR, there would be $20 billion for disaster funding, so that would get filled and disasters would be taken care of.”

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) addresses questions Tuesday about spending legislation. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

But that stopgap spending bill, as written, has become a non-starter in the Republican-controlled House. It’s far from clear at this point whether it will come to the floor with revisions to satisfy conservative holdouts or if it’s been tabled, permanently.

And even if Republicans are able to rally around it, it’s dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“The House bill leaves out disaster aid completely,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) contended, referring to the fact that the House’s framework excludes the White House’s additional $16 billion request. “We believe in disaster aid. We want to come together in the Senate on a bipartisan CR.”

‘Stop spending money’

If Republicans are able to, at the very least, revive their continuing resolution to get to the table in spending negotiations with the Senate, how to handle the disaster relief funding component will continue to be an issue.

Graves acknowledged that while the bill would give FEMA the resources to meet disaster recovery obligations for a few weeks, Congress would ultimately need to appropriate more funding.

Cammack, the Florida Republican, said $20 billion was “absolutely not” enough on its own. She is the lead sponsor of House legislation — H.R. 5343, the “Federal Disaster Responsibility Act” — that would, among other things, provide FEMA with $16.5 billion.

She said she was lobbying for a stand-alone vote on her bill in the House, and supported efforts from Florida GOP Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio to secure the same consideration in the Senate.

Scott has threatened to hoard Senate floor time to demand a unanimous consent agreement to bring his version of the bill, S. 2721, up for a vote — but he has yet to follow through.

He did say Tuesday he would vote against moving forward with the Senate’s bipartisan three-bill appropriations “minibus” until Democrats stop “playing politics with Floridians and millions of other Americans struggling to recover from recent natural disasters.”

Democrats, aware that Republicans might not be inclined to support more disaster spending against the backdrop of a ballooning federal deficit, are insisting the Biden administration’s supplemental request be included in a “clean” continuing resolution, alongside $24 billion in foreign aid to Ukraine.

Many Republicans remain divided on how to handle the disaster funding issue, with some saying they are skeptical of the big dollars being tossed around.

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who represented the Freedom Caucus in negotiations over the now-in-limbo continuing resolution in the House, said states like his needed FEMA dollars.

“The president at the same time funded 87,000 IRS agents nobody wants, and he’s funded $2 trillion in Green New Deal subsidies, which don’t help our energy grid,” Donalds said.

“So in my view, why would we put money towards that? Instead of spending money on IRS agents, why don’t we actually help the American people recover from natural disasters?”

Donalds was making an inaccurate reference to funding for the IRS in the Inflation Reduction Act, while it was unclear what green subsidies he was referring to. The Inflation Reduction Act provided $369 billion in climate-related spending.

Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.), who said she was sensitive to the needs of disaster victims as the lawmaker for a district hit hard by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, questioned whether FEMA was spending money responsibility and wanted more accountability before greenlighting an additional $16 billion request.

House Conservative Climate Caucus Chair John Curtis (R-Utah.) argued, “We just have to stop spending money,” adding, “Generally, we just throw a bunch of money at these things. Nobody has ever analyzed what the true cost is, and I would like to know more.”

Senate action

House Republicans are contending with the politics of disaster aid amid the politics of government spending writ large: Not only are they unable at this point to coalesce around a spending mechanism to fund the government, they can’t even move a stand-alone, partisan appropriations bill on the chamber floor.

In addition to the delay on the continuing resolution, GOP lawmakers failed Tuesday to advance their Defense appropriations measure, raising questions about if and when they’ll try to take action on another spending bill anytime soon.

McCarthy had floated at one point the possibility of putting President Joe Biden’s $16 billion request in the House GOP Homeland Security appropriations bill — though that bill also wouldn’t pass muster with Democrats given the topline spending cuts and the inclusion of restrictive immigration policy riders.

The speaker also remains reluctant to put a bill on the floor that would rely on Democrats for passage, knowing it would lead to a full-scale revolt within his conference that could culminate in his ouster.

With the House at a standstill, Democrats in the Senate signaled they were preparing to take matters into their own hands. The chamber is slated to vote Wednesday on a procedural motion on a package of spending bills: Military Construction-Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development.

“I’m working hard here in the Senate to make sure we do put together a bipartisan CR that will deliver on the necessary funding for disaster relief, supporting Ukraine, paying our wildland firefighters and more,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) at a press conference with Schumer on Tuesday afternoon.

But when asked if Democrats would be willing to separate Ukraine funding from disaster relief to make it more palatable to conservatives wary of greenlighting more foreign aid, Schumer replied, “Look, I’m not going to speculate about how to package it other than just say we need [a] bipartisan process either way.”

Meanwhile, as time runs short, members are growing impatient.

“There is an urgency — particular with Maui, with Florida, with Vermont, even Ohio and East Palestine — we have an obligation to American citizens first,” said Cammack. “And that is why this clean disaster relief supplemental … that absolutely has to be a part of the conversation.”

Reporters Kelsey Brugger, Andres Picon and Nidhi Prakash contributed.