The catastrophic floods brought by Hurricane Harvey to southeastern Texas will pose an immediate test for the White House and Congress, pressing policymakers to approve billions of dollars in recovery funds even though they haven’t agreed on much else this year.
White House officials and GOP leaders were already taking stock of the challenge on Sunday, even as the floodwaters in Texas — and the eventual cost of recovery — were still rising. One senior White House official and GOP aides on Capitol Hill said late Sunday they expected to begin discussing an “emergency” package of funding soon to help with relief and rebuilding efforts, even if agreement as to the size of such a package remained premature.
Harvey’s devastation poses President Trump’s first test in emergency assistance, potentially revealing whether he can overcome Congress’s deep divisions over spending and the budget to prioritize aid. It will also test whether Trump can suspend his adversarial governing style and even postpone his own agenda, notably an overhaul of the tax code, to assemble a major — and costly — package that could be directed to law enforcement, emergency relief, schools, infrastructure, hospitals, food banks and several other entities.
The storm comes as Washington was gripped with a budget battle and little time to resolve differences. Many government operations are funded through only the end of September, and Trump has threatened to partially shut down the government if lawmakers don’t approve $1.6 billion in funding to construct parts of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Harvey could upend that budget fight, pressuring politicians to reach a quick resolution. That is because a government shutdown could sideline agencies involved in a rescue and relief effort that officials are predicting will last years.
“I don’t think the wall becomes as important now as making sure that the individuals in Texas who have been suffering from this storm are taken care of,” said William Hoagland, a former GOP staff director for the Senate Budget Committee.
Also likely to be a factor is the prevailing view among hard-line Republicans — notably during the debate about Hurricane Sandy — that aid packages should be offset by corresponding budget cuts. Democrats are sure to remind Republicans, particularly those from Texas who voted against the Sandy package, of their past stands.
Hoagland noted that dealing with Harvey could actually force lawmakers to reach an agreement to raise the debt ceiling more quickly than they might have otherwise, as the Treasury Department might need more flexibility to extend emergency cash to areas affected by the storm. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said the debt ceiling must be raised by Sept. 29 or the government will have a hard time paying all of its bills.
The federal government had only $50.6 billion in cash reserves as of Thursday, down from more than $350 billion in January. It has drawn down this account because Congress has not been able to reach an agreement on how to deal with the debt ceiling.
The economic impact of major storms can be severe.