- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2017

President Trump signed a bill Friday afternoon to inject billions of dollars into disaster relief, racing to deliver the funds as Hurricane Irma bears down on Florida and as cleanup efforts from Hurricane Harvey get fully underway in Texas.

Mr. Trump acted just hours after the bill cleared the House in a strong bipartisan vote.

The bill doles out $15.25 billion in disaster money, while also including provisions to keep the government borrowing and spending into the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

It was the result of a deal President Trump struck with Democratic leaders, aiming to show national unity at a time when the country is facing crises on several fronts.

Some congressional Republicans grumbled, but most of them went along, with the House voting 316-90 to approve the package. All Democrats present, and about three-fifths of the GOP were in favor of the bill.

“We’re here today to tell those folks in Florida, those folks in Texas and those who face disasters all over this country that this Congress has your back,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Republican who represents coastal Texas.

The $15.25 billion in disaster relief money includes $7.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s fund to cover immediate costs for victims; $450 million for the Small Business Authority disaster loan program; and $7.4 billion for Community Development Block Grants, a Housing and Urban Development program to help local governments begin to rebuild.

With the government running massive deficits, all of the newly approved cash will have to be borrowed, deepening the debt.

The Treasury Department, though, is already bumping up against the legal limit for how much debt it can accumulate, so the bill grants a new debt holiday through Dec. 8.

And with the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, Congress was also under pressure to pass a new set of spending bills, So they agreed to a stopgap measure to keep the government open through Dec. 8 as well.

The bill cleared the Senate on an 80-17 vote a day earlier, and it now goes to Mr. Trump for his signature.

FEMA had said without an infusion of cash, it would run out of room in the disaster relief fund, which doles out payments for disaster victims to get hotel rooms, pay for emergency home repairs or immediate health needs.

Officials said that money is going out faster than usual not only because of the size of the disaster, but also because of online tools that have made it easy to quickly register for aid.

The bill moved through Congress with stunning speed, building momentum in a way unimaginable in the pre-Trump era.

On Wednesday, the House passed a narrow Hurricane Harvey relief package that only included $7.85 billion for FEMA and the small business loans. Later that afternoon, though, Mr. Trump struck a deal with Democrats to add the short-term debt and government spending package to the Harvey bill.

Senators then doubled the disaster relief money and put the bill on the floor Thursday, approving it in a truncated debate that lasted just a few hours.

The House then sped up its own schedule Friday, clearing the bill after less than an hour of debate.

Just ahead of the vote, the House GOP huddled with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney to vent frustrations with the way the process unfolded.

Lawmakers emerged from the meeting still seething — particularly after Mr. Mnuchin made an appeal to Republicans to “Vote for the debt ceiling for me.”

“That did not go over well with the room at all,” said Rep. Mark Walker, North Carolina Republican. “There was some hissing and I don’t know if there was booing — but there were some groans, I’ll put it that way.”

Rep. Dave Brat, Virginia Republican, said Mr. Mnuchin’s talk was “intellectually insulting.”

“It’s not about raising the debt limit. Everybody [was] going to do that. It’s not about Harvey - everybody was going to do that,” Mr. Brat said. “The question is how in the world did we get trapped into linking a clean debt ceiling increase over the long run with Harvey funding, right? To me, that’s very cynical. I don’t like it.”

“He said ‘I get it. I get it. I get it.’ And he doesn’t get it, [because] all they had to do is OK, let’s fund Harvey fully, let’s do a debt ceiling increase, add one comma and one phrase of anything having to do with to with long-run financial sanity, right…we had tons of ideas,” Mr. Brat said.

- Stephen Dinan contributed to this article.

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