The leader of an influential group of House conservatives warned GOP leaders Thursday not to attach aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey to an increase in the federal debt limit, a stance that could constrain Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as he tries to win support over the coming weeks for several controversial must-pass measures.
The warning from Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, came as White House and congressional leaders discussed a plan to immediately pump about $6 billion into federal disaster relief efforts. President Donald Trump could send a specific request for the funding as soon as Friday, people briefed on the discussions said.
A debt-ceiling increase could be attached to the bill, those people said, to win broader support for that divisive measure ahead of a Sept. 29 deadline. But Meadows, who leads a group of hard-liners that has frequently frustrated House Republican leaders, said attaching Harvey aid to a debt-ceiling increase would be a "terrible idea" that would be "conflating two very different issues."
"The Harvey relief would pass on its own, and to use that as a vehicle to get people to vote for a debt ceiling is not appropriate," he said in an interview. "That sends all the wrong message: 'Let's go ahead and increase the debt ceiling, and by the way, while we're doing it let's go ahead and spend another $15, $20 billion?' That's not to undercut the importance of Harvey relief. We're going to fund Harvey relief without a doubt, but I think it just sends the wrong message when you start attaching it to the debt ceiling."
White House and congressional leaders have not yet made final decisions about the amount of funding, or whether to link it to extensions of the debt limit or of broader government spending, and conversations remained fluid Thursday evening. But lawmakers in the affected region are pressing for swift action.
On a private conference call Wednesday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., assured Republican members of the Texas and Louisiana House delegations that leaders would move as soon as next week to provide funding. The conversation included White House budget director Mick Mulvaney and other administration officials.
"We are able to act as quickly as needed as soon as the administration is able to put together an initial number that will be needed," said a GOP aide who was on the call. "But we don't know what that number is yet, and there is for sure going to be a larger number once there is a greater understanding of the full scope of the damage."
White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert told reporters Thursday that about 100,000 homes have been affected by Harvey-related flooding, according to initial estimates. "That's a big number," he said, noting that those homes have "different degrees of insurance — some with flood insurance, some underinsured, some uninsured."
Bossert and Capitol Hill aides declined to estimate the level of federal aid Congress might ultimately have to provide for Harvey relief, but they did not discount the possibility that it would outstrip the $120 billion that was appropriated to help rebuild after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. It is likely, they said, to be approved in multiple tranches over the coming months as damages are calculated.
"There's nobody that's wrong on estimates right now," Bossert said, when asked about a suggestion from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) that recovery needs might exceed $100 billion — a figure that would represent about 10 percent of what the federal government spends each year on all nondefense discretionary spending combined.
Lawmakers return to Washington on Tuesday after a five-week summer recess, facing pressure to act not only on Harvey aid but also on several crucial measures that require action before month-end deadlines. They include extending government funding to avert an Oct. 1 government shutdown, reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program and the Children's Health Insurance Program, and raising the debt ceiling to avoid a disastrous federal default.
The Treasury Department told Congress in July it would have to act on the debt limit by Sept. 29. On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a CNBC interview that the deadline could creep up by "a couple of days" because of Harvey-related spending.
Meadows and other staunch conservatives have long opposed a "clean" debt-ceiling increase, preferring to attach measures that would limit the growth of federal spending, even though the Trump administration is pushing for a clean extension. Meadows said Thursday he would like a measure that would index the debt limit to growth in the economy; another conservative leader, Rep. Mark Walker (N.C.) of the Republican Study Committee, said this week that he would support efforts to constrain Medicaid spending.
"Having some guardrails for fiscal responsibility is certainly important and to just ignore it would not be prudent," Meadows said.
A spokesman for Ryan declined to comment Thursday on Meadows's remarks. Ryan's office said earlier this week that the House stood ready to act to help Harvey victims pending a funding request from the Trump administration.
Once Trump sends the official request for the emergency funds to Congress, a number of different scenarios could play out, people involved in the discussions said.
The House could appropriate the money in a stand-alone bill or combine it with a broader package to fund the federal government for the next fiscal year, which begins in October. Then the Senate could decide to pass the same bill, or attach an increase in the debt ceiling to the legislation.
Senate Republicans aren't likely to settle on a way forward or make any specific decisions on how to proceed until they meet in person at their regularly scheduled policy luncheon Tuesday or Wednesday, according to a senior aide familiar with their plans.
That timeline reflects how the more deliberative Senate works, the aide said, rather than any resistance to delivering federal aid: "We're all on the same page about what we need to do."
Meadows said Thursday that he and other hard-line conservatives could support attaching Harvey aid to a stopgap government spending measure that is expected to be drafted next month. That bill would extend current federal spending into December, allowing time for further negotiations over key GOP priorities - including the Mexican border wall demanded by Trump.
The border wall is unlikely to prompt a showdown in September, Meadows said, despite Trump's threats at a recent campaign rally that opposition to its funding could prompt a government shutdown. "I'm supportive of the wall and putting the wall funding in [the stopgap], but from a pragmatic standpoint, it will get stripped out in the Senate," he said.
Meadows also said that he did not expect a major fight over whether the Harvey aid package would be offset with cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.
"My whole focus has always been, let's make sure the relief efforts are about the relief efforts," he said. "Let's not put everybody's special project in there, and let's not fund fish hatcheries in Alaska like we did with Sandy relief." (A small portion of the $50 billion Sandy bill passed in 2013 funded relief for federally declared fishery disasters elsewhere in the United States, including Alaska.)
"Obviously we would prefer offsets," Meadows added. "Generally speaking, though, to demand offsets when you have this magnitude of emergency spending is not something that I believe will get done. I mean, you know me: I'm a fiscal conservative, and I would prefer to have offsets, but ... let's put it this way: The focus has not been on the offsets as much as it has been on getting relief to those affected."
The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.