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House sends $15 billion Harvey aid bill, debt hike to Trump to sign

HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 30: Flooded homes are shown near Lake Houston following Hurricane Harvey August 29, 2017 in Houston, Texas. The city of Houston is still experiencing severe flooding in some areas due to the accumulation of historic levels of rainfall, though the storm has moved to the north and east. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The House voted overwhelmingly on Friday to send a $15.3 billion disaster aid package to President Donald Trump, overcoming conservative objections to linking the emergency legislation to a temporary increase in America’s borrowing authority. The legislation also keeps the government funded into December.

The 316-90 vote would refill depleted emergency accounts as Florida braces for the impact of Hurricane Irma this weekend and Texas picks up the pieces after the devastation of the Harvey storm.

It’s just the first installment of a federal aid package that could rival or exceed the $110 billion federal response after Hurricane Katrina, though future aid packages may be more difficult to pass. It also kicks budget decisions into December and forces another politically tough debt limit vote next year.

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, a former tea party congressman from South Carolina who took a hard line against debt increases during his years in the House, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin faced a rough time when they pitched the measure to House Republicans at a closed-door meeting held just before the vote. Republicans were stunned earlier this week when Trump agreed with Democratic leaders on the short-term debt increase over GOP objections.

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.

Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., described a surreal scene with Mnuchin, a former Democratic donor, and Office of Management and Budget Director Mulvaney, who opposed clean debt ceiling hike’s as a congressman, pressing Republicans to rally around the disaster aid package.

“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 defended the deal and Trump.

“It was absolutely the right thing to do,” Mulvaney said. “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.”

Trump on Wednesday had cut a deal with Democratic leaders Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi to increase the debt limit for three months, rather than the long-term approach preferred by the GOP leaders that would have gotten the issue fixed 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.

“It’s like the Washington that Trump campaigned against,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. “So, as much as I want to help Texas, I can’t vote for something that just is a blank check on the debt.”

But most in the GOP said they weren’t upset with Trump himself.

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.

As a practical measure, since the arcane debt-limit suspension replenishes Treasury’s ability to tap other accounts to maintain cash flows, the actual date of a potential default wouldn’t come before February or March. That’s according to a back-of-the-envelope calculation by Shai Akabas, who tracks the issue for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank.

Late Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., added $7.4 billion in rebuilding funding to Trump’s $7.9 billion request to deal with the immediate emergency in Texas and parts of Louisiana.