Authorizing aid opens another window for Congress to potentially play politics and bicker over policy ahead of two key deadlines.
President Donald Trump, who visited Texas on Tuesday, has promised swift help for the state after Harvey, which was the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years when it came ashore Friday. A number of people have died and billions of dollars in damage have been caused in southeast Texas, where some areas could see as much as 50 inches of rain from the lingering storm. Rescue operations are ongoing in Houston and surrounding areas, where flooding has stranded residents.
When Congress gets back from its August recess, it will have to respond to the storm as it already faces two politically contentious deadlines. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has warned that the U.S government will hit its borrowing limit on Sept. 29 and potentially risk defaulting on its obligations without raising the debt ceiling. Lawmakers also need to pass a funding bill before Sept. 30 to avoid a government shutdown.
The hurricane adds another wrinkle to what could already become a messy set of negotiations.
“Congress can always find time, find a way to do the things it needs to do in an emergency,” said Steven Billet, director of the legislative affairs program at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. “The bigger question is who may or may not be tempted to play politics with [disaster relief.] … The temptation will most assuredly be there for a lot of people.”
Both raising the debt limit and funding the government will likely come with complications. The White House has called for a “clean” debt ceiling increase without other provisions attached. Some conservative Republicans have previously called for spending cuts along with raising the borrowing limit and could seek concessions in the bill this time around.
Trump has also threatened a government shutdown if Congress does not fund his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats have opposed approving money for the project.
Throwing in Hurricane Harvey relief my make September even more complicated.
Even legislation to approve disaster aid has proven contentious in the past. In 2013, many Republican lawmakers — including some from now storm-ravaged Texas — voted against a Hurricane Sandy relief bill. Some said it contained too much funding for unrelated provisions or sought corresponding spending cuts.
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., head of the influential Republican Study Committee, told CNBC he is not taking a hard line on spending reforms with disaster relief funding.
The potential effect of Harvey aid on Congress’ ability to meet its goals in the coming weeks will depend on whether lawmakers attempt to approve aid on its own or tie it to a spending or debt ceiling bill, said Molly Reynolds, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.