WASHINGTON (AP) – Congress on Friday sent President Donald Trump a massive package of $15.3 billion in disaster aid linked to an increase in the nation’s borrowing authority that angered conservative Republicans who hissed and booed senior administration officials dispatched to Capitol Hill to defend it.
Hours later, Trump signed the measure into law.
The House voted 316-90 for the measure that would refill depleted emergency accounts as Florida braces for the impact of Hurricane Irma and Texas picks up the pieces after the devastation of the Harvey storm. All 90 votes in opposition were cast by Republicans, many of whom seethed after Trump cut the disaster-and-debt deal with Democratic leaders with no offsetting budget cuts.
“You can’t just keep borrowing money. We’re going to be $22 trillion in debt,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C.
The aid measure is just the first installment in government spending that could rival or exceed the $110 billion federal response after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, though future aid packages may be more difficult to pass. The legislation also funds the government through Dec. 8.
In a closed-door meeting before the vote, more than a dozen Republicans stood up and complained about Trump cutting a deal with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi instead of GOP leaders trying to deliver on the president’s agenda.
Budget chief Mick Mulvaney, a former tea party congressman from South Carolina who took a hard line against debt increases during his House tenure, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin faced a rough time in pleading for votes.
Mnuchin elicited hisses when he told the meeting of House Republicans “vote for the debt ceiling for me,” said Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C.
Republicans were in disbelief after Mnuchin argued that the debt ceiling shouldn’t be a political issue in the future, said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C.
Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., described a surreal scene with Mnuchin, a former Democratic donor, and Mulvaney, who almost certainly would have opposed the very measure he was sent to pitch, pressing Republicans to rally around the legislation.
“It’s kind of like ’Where am I? What’s going on here?’” Costello said. “If it wasn’t so serious it kind of would have been funny.”
Mulvaney was booed when he stepped to the microphone, though lawmakers said it was good-natured. He defended the deal and Trump.
“It was absolutely the right thing to do,” Mulvaney told reporters after the meeting. “The president is a results-driven person, and right now he wants to see results on Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma and tax reform. He saw an opportunity to work with Democrats on this particular issue at this particular time.”
But Mulvaney further upset Republicans when he wouldn’t promise spending cuts as part of a future debt limit vote.
Trump on Wednesday had cut a deal with Sen. Schumer and Rep. Pelosi to increase the debt limit for three months, rather than the long-term approach preferred by the GOP leaders that would have resolved the issue through next year’s midterms.
Conservatives disliked both options. Voting on the debt limit is politically toxic for Republicans, and the deal will make the GOP vote twice ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
Fiscal conservatives have clamored for deep cuts in spending in exchange for any increase in the government’s borrowing authority. The storm relief measure had widespread support, but the linkage with the debt ceiling left many Republicans frustrated.
“Are we doing anything on fiscal sanity? No,” said tea party Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va. “And so Mick (Mulvaney) came over today, the Treasury secretary came over today, and we said, ‘Do you have a plan for fiscal sanity going forward?’ No. Crickets. So that’s the frustration.”
Democratic votes are invariably needed to increase the debt limit – and avert a potential market-quaking default on government obligations – and Schumer and Pelosi successfully pressed to waive the debt limit through Dec. 8. Democrats are cautious about working with Trump, but hold out hope for legislation on the budget, health care, and shielding young immigrants brought to this country illegally from deportation.
Moderate GOP Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said he’s been encouraging Trump to find ways to work with the Democrats. King attended a Thursday meeting in the White House with lawmakers when the president asked him “how did I feel the bipartisan deal was going. Did I think it was good?” I said, “‘Absolutely, we need more of it.’ I said, ‘You and Chuck. The two of you in the room. We can make some good deals.’”