Senate Passes Bill on Storm Aid, Debt Limit and Government Spending

By Kristina Peterson Features Dow Jones Newswires

The Senate Thursday approved a contentious deal struck between President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders that rolled together emergency relief for Harvey victims with a short-term extension of the government's funding and its borrowing limit.

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In an 80-17 vote that came together swiftly on Thursday, the Senate passed legislation approving $15.25 billion for relief and recovery efforts for the Harvey and Irma hurricanes, as well as provisions keeping the government running and its debt limit suspended until Dec. 8.

The Senate vote, held with unusual speed just hours after the bill was released late Wednesday, dispatched three of the most urgent measures facing Congress this month -- all within lawmakers' first week of return after their August break. Congress rarely acts before an 11th-hour deadline and most lawmakers were expecting a long, protracted fight over the debt ceiling and government spending to consume most of the month.

The government's current funding expires by Oct. 1 and Treasury Department officials had said Congress had to raise the debt limit by month's end to avoid any risk of defaulting on the debt.

But the destruction wrought by Harvey and Mr. Trump's decision this week to strike a deal with Democrats appears likely to free up much of the fall for negotiations on other issues, including immigration and an overhaul of the tax code.

The package now heads to the House, which is expected to vote on it Friday. Many conservatives are reluctant to vote increase the debt limit without taking any other steps to curb federal spending. But most, if not all, Democrats are likely to support it, as are many Republicans from Texas, Louisiana and Florida, all states affected by or bracing for the storms.

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"The recovery effort for a record-setting storm like Harvey has strained resources to the limit already," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said on the Senate floor Thursday. "The advance of another historic storm now makes the need for action even more urgent."

Mr. Trump stunned GOP leaders when he agreed in a meeting at the White House Wednesday to an offer proposed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) to combine the Harvey relief with a three-month suspension of the debt limit and three-month extension of current spending levels, over the objections of GOP leaders.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) on Wednesday had sharply criticized the three-month extension as "ridiculous" and "unworkable" just hours before Mr. Trump backed it. On Thursday, Mr. Ryan said Mr. Trump had made "a game call" in order to demonstrate a "bipartisan moment" in the face of the two natural disasters, Harvey and Irma.

"He wanted to have a bipartisan response and not a food fight on the timing of the debt limit," Mr. Ryan said Thursday in an interview with the New York Times streamed live.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 07, 2017 15:01 ET (19:01 GMT)