House Passes Deal on Storm Aid, Debt Limit, Government Funding

By Kristina Peterson and Siobhan Hughes Features Dow Jones Newswires

The House on Friday approved a package of $15.25 billion in relief for victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma as well as a three-month extension of the government's funding and borrowing limit.

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Passed in a 316-90 vote with scant debate, the bill was the result of an unexpected deal President Donald Trump struck with Democratic leaders in which they agreed to wrap together the hurricane relief aid with a controversial short-term extension of the debt ceiling. The bill passed the Senate on Thursday and Mr. Trump signed it late Friday.

The House action came after a contentious meeting during which Republican lawmakers lashed out in frustration at Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney in a closed-door meeting.

Rep. Joe Barton (R., Texas) asked Mr. Mulvaney whether he could provide assurances that the next increase in the debt limit would be accompanied by deficit-reduction measures, a longstanding GOP goal. Mr. Mulvaney said he couldn't provide such assurances, according to people in the room.

"I'm not a happy camper about this process," Mr. Barton told reporters later.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) relied on the votes of House Democrats to clear the bill Friday, when many conservatives balked at voting to raise the debt limit without taking any steps to rein in federal spending.

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The bill passed with the support of 133 Republicans and 183 Democrats. It was opposed by 90 Republicans. No Democrats voted against it.

Under the bill, the government's funding will now expire on Dec. 8 and the debt limit will be suspended until the same date, although Treasury Department officials will be able to take steps to continue paying the government's bills for a period beyond that. Government debt hit its statutory limit in mid-March at nearly $20 trillion and Treasury officials have been employing cash-conservation measures since then.

In the closed-door meeting, Messrs. Mnuchin and Mulvaney pressed lawmakers to vote to lift the debt limit, with Mr. Mnuchin adding a personal appeal to "vote for the debt ceiling increase for me," GOP lawmakers said.

Mr. Mnuchin's entreaty didn't go over well with House Republicans, who looked at each other "like what the heck was that?" and waited for a punch line that never appeared, said Rep. Mark Walker (R., N.C.), who said Mr. Mnuchin, a newcomer to Washington, dodged several policy questions raised by GOP lawmakers.

Mr. Walker, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 150 conservative House Republicans, asked Mr. Mnuchin what level the federal debt would reach at its new Dec. 8 deadline, and said he didn't receive an answer. "He had nothing," Mr. Walker said. "It did not go well in the conference."

In the meeting, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R., N.Y.) -- a Trump supporter -- stood up and said Mr. Trump had undercut Mr. Ryan and the Republican conference in Wednesday's meeting where the deal was reached with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

"I said when you're in that Oval Office meeting and the speaker is there, just know that he was unanimously elected and he represents a conference that is passing one item after another of the agenda and is going to get tax reform done as well," Mr. Zeldin recounted. "So when a meeting like that takes place, it upsets members who are supportive of the president, " he said, because "you're creating a new leverage point that potentially favors Democrats."

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R., S.C.) said he asked Mr. Mnuchin to articulate what the Treasury Department's plan is "to address the drivers of our deficit spending."

Instead, Mr. Mulvaney stepped in and said "'the plan is to grow the economy and increase revenues,'" Mr. Duncan said. "Growing the economy is great, but it may take a little time for that revenue to be realized, " Mr. Duncan said.

Mr. Mulvaney, who was known as one of the most committed fiscal hawks when he served in the House, had some uncomfortable moments in the meeting when his former colleagues suggested he had changed his tune since taking his post in the White House.

At one point Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) asked if Mr. Mulvaney had 42 deputy positions open so Republicans could send "'42 of our GOP members to go over and become your deputies and start to change their thinking like you've changed your thinking,'" Rep. Mark Meadows (R., N.C.) later recounted to reporters.

The 42 number was a reference to the membership of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of the chamber's most hard-line conservatives. The suggestion was that they might come around and understand the need to raise the debt limit if they went to the White House, given Mr. Mulvaney's previous opposition, GOP lawmakers and aides said.

Mr. Meadows, the group's chairman, took it with good humor. "Darrell Issa's line was the best line I've heard in five years," he said. "It was the only time I've seen Director Mulvaney quiet and speechless in at least five years."

Mr. Mulvaney declined to answer a reporter's question after the meeting over whether he would have voted for the bill had he still been in the House.

"I don't think it's a relevant question," Mr. Mulvaney said, noting that he urged lawmakers to support the bill Friday to ensure federal agencies have sufficient funds for hurricane recovery efforts. "This was an emergency situation. It was absolutely necessary to do it and not the time to have longer discussions about the larger fiscal issues," he said.

Repeating the argument he made to lawmakers, Mr. Mulvaney said he told them: "Look, if you don't like the outcome, take the next three months to try to come up with a way for a better solution."

Mr. Mnuchin left the meeting "way early," Mr. Walker said. At the meeting's end, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) stepped in to rally the troops with a speech.

"There were probably a lot of members in there sort of in disbelief," Rep. Ryan Costello (R., Pa.) said after the meeting. "You have a longtime Democratic donor Treasury Secretary say we as a Republican conference need to vote for this and an OMB director who I don't believe ever supported a clean debt ceiling," he said. "It's kind of like: Where am I right now? What is going on?"

"If it wasn't so serious, it would kind of be funny," he said.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com and Siobhan Hughes at siobhan.hughes@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 08, 2017 17:45 ET (21:45 GMT)