House votes to send $15.3B Harvey aid package to Trump; funds government through Dec. 8

Washington Post

The House on Friday overwhelmingly approved a $15.25 billion disaster aid package that also extended government funding and the federal borrowing limit until Dec. 8, moments after Republicans booed two top White House officials over the deal struck this week by President Donald Trump.

The measure passed 316-90; every member opposed was a Republican.

Yet even the House Republicans who supported the bill were frustrated Trump on Wednesday bargained with Democrats for a short-limit debt increase, undercutting GOP congressional leaders and setting up a messy end-of-year negotiation.

That frustration was taken out Friday morning on Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, who came to Capitol Hill to urge skeptical Republican lawmakers to back the measure.

To many GOP members, the administration's messengers were poorly chosen: Mnuchin is a New York financier known for his past as a Democratic fundraiser. Mulvaney is a former House conservative who spent much of his legislative career browbeating GOP leaders over the national debt and budget deficits.

"There were probably a lot of members in there in disbelief," Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., said. "I do know that there is a lot of frustration with the deal that was cut by the president, and I think it's a very difficult pill for many in there to swallow."

At several points, according to several members and aides, comments from Mnuchin and Mulvaney were met with groans, boos and hisses.

Mnuchin, in particular, drew jeers after asking Republicans to support the measure for him personally rather than for the policy, then leaving the meeting early by explaining he had other pressing matters to attend to.

"His last words, and I quote, was, 'Vote for the debt ceiling for me,' " said Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., who leads a group of conservative members. "That did not go over well in the room at all . . . His performance was incredibly poor."

Mnuchin's closing went so poorly, Walker said, that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had to remind members afterward hundreds of thousands of hurricane victims were counting on their votes.

At another point, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Tex., pressed Mulvaney on whether the Trump administration would commit to seeking reductions in the federal budget deficit as a part of negotiations with Democrats ahead of the new Dec. 8 deadline.

Mulvaney said he could not make that commitment, and members booed.

"The debt ceiling is supposed to be at least a stop sign that gives us pause and gives us a chance to change the way we're doing our spending, and it's not even a yield sign," Barton said afterward. "In fact, it's an increase speed sign right now."

Democrats were expected to deliver a majority of the votes to approve the deal, making it easier for Republicans to vote against the package without the threat of failing to provide critical disaster funding as Hurricane Irma bears down on Florida's southern coast.

Republican leaders avoided an embarrassing benchmark by persuading a solid majority of GOP members to support the deal. But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the scale of the Republican revolt was still "remarkable" Friday.

"If I ever as leader or as speaker had 90 members vote against one of the easiest bills to vote for, which is disaster assistance, you know they have a philosophical problem with governance," she said.

The legislation easily passed the Senate by a vote of 80-17 on Thursday, despite similar concerns from Senate conservatives.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was among those Republicans who initially opposed the idea of a three-month extension of the federal borrowing limit, but he said Thursday that he supports the legislation. Ryan said he worries about the impact of continued reliance on short-term debt limit fixes on credit markets but the package Trump agreed to is intended to create certainty while the United States responds to a number of natural disasters.

"We need to make sure that the government responds to people," Ryan told reporters at a weekly news conference. "So the president wanted to make sure that we are - are going together as Republicans and Democrats to respond to this."

While the passage of the bill Friday defuses the most explosive items on the September calendar, Congress has not cleared all of the obstacles ahead. It still must reauthorize several programs and agencies before the end of the month, including the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Flood Insurance Program and the Children's Health Insurance Program. Democrats have indicated they might use those deadlines to press for action to protect those at risk of deportation due to Trump's cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, as well as payments to health insurers mandated under the Affordable Care Act.

Those fights, however, would not result in a government shutdown or federal default. That risk now shifts to December, setting up months of high-stakes bargaining that will determine whether Trump will be able to fulfill promises of increasing military spending and building at least a portion of a Mexican border wall. Also likely to become part of the negotiation is another chunk of federal funding for disaster victims - a tally that could increase dramatically with Hurricane Irma.

Among those most frustrated by Trump's deal with Democrats were Texas conservatives who represent the area affected by Hurricane Harvey. Texas lawmakers met Thursday for a bipartisan lunch during which Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) called in and urged them to support the federal aid bill.

Many conservatives left the lunch saying that they expected to take their first-ever vote in favor of a debt-ceiling hike in order to advance Harvey aid.

Most of the state's delegation supported the bill, but four Texas Republicans voted against it: Barton, as well as Reps. Sam Johnson, Jeb Hensarling and Mac Thornberry. The latter two men both chair major committees.

"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 Thursday.

Rep. Bill Flores, R-Tex., who represents a West Texas district largely spared by Harvey, said he was undecided on the bill and wondered about its consequences.

"I just hope the president isn't hurt by the long-term impact of this deal," he 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."

But others saw Trump's deal as a wake-up call to Republicans.

"I think he sent a crystal-clear message that if we don't get things accomplished, he's going to find other ways to move the ball," Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J., said. "That should ratchet up pressure on the House and the Senate."

On Friday morning, it was Mulvaney - a firebrand co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, a group that has railed against increasing the debt limit - who absorbed much of the House GOP's frustration.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., rose to ask Mulvaney if he had 42 openings for deputy directors at the Office of Management and Budget.

A bewildered Mulvaney replied he had only one vacancy.

Issa replied that was unfortunate, because he could hire his former Freedom Caucus colleagues so they could reverse their positions on raising the debt limit just like Mulvaney had - a response that prompted a roar in the room and caused Mulvaney, in several members' telling, to turn red.

Afterward, Mulvaney's former colleagues defended him - to a point.

"It's ironic, but it's not hypocritical, because he works for somebody now," Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., said. "But it's ironic - it's really, really, really ironic."

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