Bill Combining Hurricane Aid, Debt Ceiling Increase Passes House and Senate

hurricane harvey flood
Houston on Aug. 27, 2017 as city battles with tropical storm Harvey and resulting floods / Getty

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey and with Hurricane Irma looming off the coast of Florida, Congress has passed a $15.25 billion hurricane aid package coupled with a controversial three-month debt ceiling increase.

The bill passed the House of Representatives on Friday by a vote of 316-90 after it had passed the Senate 80-17 on Thursday. In both cases, Republicans made up the entirety of "no" votes. Republican congressional leaders initially balked at the idea of a short-term raise in the debt ceiling, pitching an 18-month and then six-month limit. Nonetheless, enough Republican lawmakers ultimately went along with a deal struck between Democratic congressional leaders and President Donald Trump on Wednesday.

"We need to make sure that the government responds to people," House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) said at a Thursday news conference. "So the president wanted to make sure that we are going together as Republicans and Democrats to respond to this."

Ryan had said the Democrats' proposed deal was "ridiculous" Wednesday morning, but Trump disagreed. Ryan later credited Trump for seeking bipartisanship and expressed that the primary concern is supporting the Harvey recovery, and looking forward to the threat Hurricane Irma poses to Florida.

"What [Trump] was aiming for yesterday was a bipartisan moment while the country is facing two horrible hurricanes," Ryan said.

Some conservative Republicans, especially in Texas, were opposed to the the bill combining  a debt ceiling increase, or other items, with emergency hurricane relief.

"My fear is we set a bad precedent here, that you just load it up with other stuff," Rep. Blake Farenthold (R., Texas) said. "This is what's wrong in Washington: They pile stuff together so you have to weigh the good versus the bad rather than give every issue individual consideration. That's the part of living in the swamp I don't like."

Rep. Joe Barton (R., Texas) voted against the bill, and beforehand he expressed his dissatisfaction with Trump's deal to raise the debt ceiling.

"I love President Trump, and I'm with him probably 90 or 95 percent of the time, but I don't think it's appropriate to raise the debt ceiling with $19 trillion public debt and not have any effort to change the way we spend money here in Washington," Barton said.

Rep. Bill Flores (R., Texas), whose district avoided the worst of Harvey, questioned the wisdom of Trump making a deal that will hand Democratic leaders leverage on future fiscal negotiations.

"I just hope the president isn't hurt by the long-term impact of this deal," Flores said. "You think about a Dec. 8 debt-ceiling deadline: The Democrats are going to play that for all its worth in terms of a government shutdown and trying to cut a deal that may have all of their pet projects in it, and that may be something the president doesn’t find to be beneficial."

Other Texas Republicans supported the bill more wholeheartedly. They pointed to the need for apportioned disaster aid funds while Irma looms over Florida and is poised to strain FEMA resources even further.

"The agency is running out of funds and bracing for Irma's impact and perhaps two other storms that may be headed to the United States of America and other territories. We are one nation under God, I give thanks to that Mr. Speaker," House Rules chairman Pete Sessions (R., Texas) said.

Texas Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, both Republicans, also voted in support of the bill. Cruz's yes vote came despite his previously held hard line on debt ceiling negotiations.

"It is unfortunate that congressional leadership and the administration chose to tie Harvey relief to short-term extensions to the CR and the debt ceiling," Cruz said Thursday. "I would have much preferred a clean Harvey relief bill—which would have passed both Houses nearly unanimously."