Lawmakers Say Latest $44 Billion Storm Aid Package Needs to Be Bigger

By Kristina Peterson and Natalie Andrews Features Dow Jones Newswires

Lawmakers from both parties said the White House's latest request for emergency disaster-relief funds falls far short of what is needed to recover from this year's devastating storms, and braced for a political fight over how to pay for it.

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In its funding request Friday, its third to date, the White House asked for $44 billion in emergency disaster relief and suggested trimming federal spending by $59 billion to offset the cost of the aid, a step that could ignite a congressional fight over whether disaster relief has to be paired with budget cuts elsewhere.

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said in a letter to congressional leaders that the White House would be requesting additional funds later to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands recover from Hurricane Maria, but that more time was needed to assess the damage there.

Congress has already approved almost $52 billion in disaster relief. Mr. Mulvaney said in his letter that the administration believes it is "prudent to offset new spending," and that it wants to work with lawmakers to find the best way to do that.

The two biggest chunks of the disaster-relief request sent to Congress Friday are $25 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster-relief fund and $12 billion for flood mitigation projects.

Even before the White House had officially sent its request, senior Republicans from Texas were criticizing it as insufficient. In a hearing Thursday evening, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R., Texas) called the request "wholly inadequate." Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has requested $61 billion in assistance, which Mr. Cornyn supports, an aide said.

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Democrats said the request didn't come close to what would be needed, particularly for Puerto Rico, which is struggling to restore power and rebuild. Puerto Rico is asking Congress for $94.4 billion to rebuild.

"This request does not come close to what local officials say is needed, " said Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, in a statement Friday.

Democrats also objected to the administration's proposal to curb federal spending by $59 billion to offset the cost of the emergency aid, including $1 billion in federal highway funding and $44 billion from extending mandatory spending limits, known as the sequester, for two additional years on nonmilitary spending.

Lawmakers have opted in the past to extend sequester cuts in the future, while repeatedly voting to raise spending in the short term. Congressional leaders are currently in discussions with the White House about raising spending caps for the rest of fiscal year 2018.

The White House proposal to offset the third batch of disaster aid is likely to ignite a debate on Capitol Hill. Republicans have often pressed to cut spending elsewhere so that disaster aid doesn't add to the federal budget deficit, but the previous two batches of disaster aid passed by Congress this year weren't offset.

Rep. Mark Walker (R., N.C.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of about 150 House Republicans, raised concerns over the last installment of disaster aid adding to the deficit.

Democrats have traditionally argued that emergency spending doesn't need to be offset and they criticized Republicans for proposing trims while they are working to pass a tax overhaul that could add $1.5 trillion to the federal deficit over 10 years. The tax rewrite passed the House on Thursday and is expected to come to the Senate floor later this month.

With the tax bill adding to the deficit, "it is galling that the Administration is requesting offsets in exchange for helping Americans rebuild their lives," Ms. Lowey said Friday.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com and Natalie Andrews at Natalie.Andrews@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 17, 2017 16:10 ET (21:10 GMT)