The House overwhelmingly passed a $36.5 billion emergency funding package Thursday intended to aid hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico and several mainland states, as well as wildfire response efforts in California.
In approving (353-69) their second tranche of hurricane aid in less than five weeks, House lawmakers agreed to the largest disaster package since Hurricane Sandy. But members from both parties describe the latest infusion as a down payment for a much more costly and comprehensive response.
“We’ve had some incredible tragedies and natural disasters,” House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said on the House floor Thursday. “We must act quickly to make sure the federal government fulfills its duties to millions of people in need.”
The legislation now heads to the Senate, where leaders plan to take it up once the chamber has finished work on a budget resolution.
In the wake of three deadly hurricanes that pounded the U.S. this season, the aid bill would send another $18.7 billion to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund. That money is used for urgent recovery efforts like power restoration and debris removal, as well as individual needs like housing and child care assistance.
The measure also includes $4.9 billion in loans to help Puerto Rico’s government make payroll for emergency services like police and fire departments.
The federal government has declared a dozen major disasters since August, from the hurricane-battered Florida coastline to California wine country.
More than three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are still reeling from their most devastating disaster in decades and could remain largely without power through the end of the year.
The bill mostly mirrors the White House’s request, including a contentious $16 billion to partially wipe out the National Flood Insurance Program’s debt.
Several House Republicans, particularly on the Financial Services Committee, balked at the idea of backing a longtime Democratic priority. Other conservatives, fueled by criticism from groups like Heritage Action and Club for Growth, condemned the idea of including a flood program “bailout” in an emergency spending bill without reforms to help reach long-term solvency.
The GOP opposition was not enough to endanger the bill, however. Leadership ultimately fast-tracked the legislation, using a process for non-controversial bills that requires the support of two-thirds of those voting to achieve passage.
Hours before the House began debate, the disaster relief bill took on fresh urgency as President Donald Trump threatened to pull back federal resources from Puerto Rico. “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” he tweeted.
Using their debate time to condemn those remarks, several House Democrats were warned by the presiding officer not to barrage the president on the floor of the House.
“Mr. President, do not send a message to any American that we will turn our backs on them,” the House’s No. 2 Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), said before the passage vote. “That is not fair, that is not right, and you ought to correct the statement you made.”
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, called the president’s outburst “reckless” at a time when “Americans are suffering and simply trying to survive.” And Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) accused Trump of “indifference and soft bigotry.”
Congress has already enacted $15 billion in emergency aid for hurricane-battered states like Florida and Texas — a bill signed more than a week before Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico.
Democrats have for weeks demanded another cash infusion for the Caribbean territory, where the Trump administration has been accused of responding too slowly.
GOP leaders initially argued that manpower — not cash — was FEMA’s most essential resource in the immediate wake of Maria. And a formal funding request was not expected until mid-to-late October.
But as public pressure mounted, the White House ultimately sped up its timeline and submitted a request last week.
Adding to that wish list on Tuesday, the Trump administration called for $4.9 billion to stave off what Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló warned could become a “liquidity crisis.”
Lawmakers from both parties, including the full 38-member Texas delegation, have pressed for funding beyond FEMA aid and debt relief for the flood insurance program. Local lawmakers say they desperately need cash for other rebuilding tools, like the Community Development Block Grant program and the Army Corps of Engineers.
House appropriators have said those programs will likely see boosts in a future aid package, while the current bill is intended for the most urgent, life-saving efforts.
“This is the second step. This is not going to be the last one. We are going to need a lot of more help in the coming months,” Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón, who represents Puerto Rico, said on the floor. “It will take a lot of resources, a lot of money and a lot of commitment of U.S. citizens like we are.”