The House passed a $36.5 billion hurricane and wildfire relief bill Thursday that would give Puerto Rico access to $4.9 billion in low-interest Treasury loans and allow the troubled National Flood Insurance Program to keep paying claims.
The 353-69 vote sends the measure to the Senate, which is expected to take it up after returning to Washington on Monday from a week-long recess. A number of Republicans voted against the bill because it doesn’t make spending cuts to pay for the funding and doesn’t overhaul the flood insurance program.
The vote came on a day when President Donald Trump threatened in a series of tweets to pull federal aid workers out of Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria three weeks ago.
“We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” Trump said on Twitter, citing a “total lack of accountability.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, is leading a bipartisan delegation to Puerto Rico on Friday to view emergency aid efforts. The government has a responsibility to help the island recover from the “humanitarian crisis,” the speaker told reporters at a news conference.
In the longer term, he said, “Yes, we need to make sure that Puerto Rico can begin to stand on its own two feet.”
Representative Nydia Velazquez, a New York Democrat, criticized Trump’s tweets in a statement, saying, “I would note that the president did not make similar threats to Texas and Florida following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.”
The House measure, H.R. 2266, includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including $4.9 billion for low-interest loans to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico is seeking the loans to avert an Oct. 31 government shutdown due to a dwindling cash balance.
The bill provides $16 billion in debt relief to the National Flood Insurance Program, which FEMA has said will run out of money as early as Oct. 23 without action by Congress. If that happened, the program would be unable to make claims payments to people whose homes have been damaged by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria or Nate, or other disasters.
The federal government can’t borrow more money from the U.S. Treasury to pay those claims because Congress has limited the flood program’s borrowing authority to $30.4 billion, which it has now reached.
The House bill also would provide $576.5 million for fighting wildfires following large-scale damage in northern California’s wine country.
Lawmakers from Texas and Florida said they would go along with the bill even though it doesn’t provide all the funds they want to rebuild their states after devastation by hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Texas Republican Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, the Senate majority whip, sought $18.7 billion in rebuilding funds.
House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey said this week he expects another disaster aid package in the coming months. Last month, Congress approved an initial $15.25 billion in funding.
Two conservative groups, Heritage Action and Club for Growth, urged members to vote against the bill. “Natural disasters are predictable — we know with 100 percent certainty that they will occur in the future. So fiscally responsible stewards of American tax dollars should plan accordingly,” Club for Growth said in a statement Thursday.
The conservative-leaning think tank R Street has urged the Senate to raise the flood insurance program’s borrowing cap instead of forgiving its debt. It also wants to limit future claims by barring coverage for homes in areas that have repeatedly been flooded and by requiring FEMA to update its flood maps.
–-With assistance from Christopher Flavelle and Anna Edgerton
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.