Congress returns with agenda upended by Harvey

Erica Werner
Associated Press

Washington — Harvey has scrambled the equation for Congress as lawmakers get ready to return to Washington on Tuesday after a five-week summer recess.

A daunting workload awaits, including funding the government by month’s end and increasing the federal borrowing limit to head off a catastrophic first-ever default.

But the immediate focus will be on rushing an aid package to storm-ravaged Texas and Louisiana, and that bipartisan imperative has pushed aside talk of a government shutdown and President Donald Trump’s feuding with GOP lawmakers.

“Somebody who’s just been pulled off their roof doesn’t want to hear about our internecine squabbles and debates over procedure when they’ve lost their homes and are trying to figure out where they’re going to sleep the next night,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa.

The House and Senate are expected to vote quickly on the first $7.9 billion aid installment to help with immediate recovery and rebuilding needs in Houston and beyond. Additional billions will be tucked into a catchall spending bill later in the month that will keep the lights on in government past Sept. 30, when the current budget year ends.

After spending the first six months of the year failing to repeal and replace the Obama-era health law and missing deadlines on other fronts, swift action on Harvey will give Congress and Trump the chance to look competent and remind voters that government can be a positive force.

GOP lawmakers head into the final quarter of the year desperate to notch accomplishments and make headway on a sweeping tax overhaul, and the majority party is eager for the chance to turn around their dreary track record ahead of next year’s elections.

“People need to know there’s some stability here,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “We’re not going to have to worry about defaults, we’re not going to have to worry about government shutdowns, these guys are all grown-up, they’re adults, and that ought to be the aim.”

For Republican leaders, disaster spending has the added benefit of acting as a potential sweetener as they try to get colleagues to take the perennially unpopular step of raising the United States’ $19.9 trillion debt ceiling. That has to happen by Sept. 29 at the latest, to permit the government to continue borrowing money to pay its bills.

GOP leaders have been making plans to pair the debt limit increase with the first batch of Harvey aid. Conservatives who oppose raising the borrowing limit without getting something in exchange are warning against the step.

“To attach a debt ceiling vote to increased spending is not anything that any conservative would normally support,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., head of the House Freedom Caucus.