WASHINGTON -- The White House on Friday sent Congress a $44 billion disaster aid request that's already under attack from lawmakers from hurricane-hit regions as way too small.
The request, President Donald Trump's third since hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria slammed the Gulf Coast and Caribbean, would bring the amount of money appropriated for disaster relief this fall close to $100 billion -- and that's before most of the money to rebuild Puerto Rico's devastated housing stock and electric grid is included.
The new installment would add $24 billion to the government's chief disaster account and establish a new $12 billion grant program for flood-risk mitigation projects. Smaller amounts would go to small-business loans and to farmers suffering crop losses.
The request followed lobbying by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, who pressed the White House for far more. There are sure to be attempts to add to the measure as it advances through the House and Senate.
"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.
Even before the measure was delivered, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called it "wholly inadequate." Cornyn worked in September to nearly double Trump's initial request for Harvey aid and has been battling with the White House ever since.
White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded, "I don't think $44 billion is a low amount, and my guess is if you asked any average citizen across this country, they wouldn't feel that it's low either."
She said Texas "should step up" and provide state money to the rebuilding efforts. She said damage assessments in Puerto Rico hadn't been completed yet and additional requests were expected.
The measure arrives as lawmakers and the White House face numerous budget-related issues by year's end, including a Dec. 8 deadline to avert a government shutdown. Top Capitol Hill leaders also are negotiating bipartisan spending increases for the Pentagon and domestic agencies in hopes of passing a catchall government funding bill. They are also seeking to renew a popular program that provides health care to children from low-income families.
And there's a tax bill that is Republicans' top priority. GOP leaders have appeared wary of tackling other budget matters while the tax legislation was taking shape, but time is running short and the agenda is packed. Talks on increasing tight "caps" on agency budgets have centered on a GOP plan for a two-year, $182 billion increase that still falls short of demands by both defense hawks and Democrats seeking more money for domestic programs.
Rossello has requested $94 billion, including $18 billion to rebuild the island's power grid and $31 billion for housing. The White House anticipates sending another request focused on the needs of the island territory but hasn't indicated when that would be.
"Because Hurricane Maria occurred more recently, damage assessments are ongoing," said White House budget director Mick Mulvaney.
Mulvaney also asked lawmakers to consider $59 billion in spending cuts to pay for the aid, including $44 billion from benefit programs by extending automatic cuts known as sequestration over the 2025-2027 budget window.
Texas and Florida officials expressed disappointment. Abbott submitted a $61 billion request to Trump last month for Harvey-related damage, including requests for flood-control and navigation projects.
He called the White House request "completely inadequate," complaining that Congress approved more funding, more quickly to areas affected in 2012 by superstorm Sandy, "which was half the storm of what Hurricane Harvey was."
"You can see that this falls short," Abbott said. "Hopefully, this is just one of multiple steps along the pathway."
The Florida congressional delegation asked for $27 billion. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said in a statement that the request "doesn't come close to providing what is needed. People are hurting and they desperately need our help, yet this request has no money to provide housing for evacuees and barely any money for Florida's citrus growers. That's unacceptable."
"Congress needs to pass a more robust disaster bill that actually provides the funding needed to help people recover," Nelson said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Congress had "proven its commitment to aid those suffering from the natural disasters of the fall." Ryan said the House would "review the request and work with the administration and members from affected states to help the victims get the resources they need to recover and rebuild."
NO POWER, HIGH DEBT
Almost two months after Hurricane Maria slammed into the U.S. commonwealth, most of Puerto Rico's households remain without power as the government prioritizes health care facilities and other core infrastructure.
San Juan has been better off than many rural areas, where the destruction was far greater. Meanwhile, the rebuilding of the power grid remains the island's greatest financial challenge and a key political flash point in San Juan and Washington.
The island declared bankruptcy earlier this year after it said it couldn't pay all of the $74 billion it owed to creditors. With many people there still lacking basic services and its economy slowed to a halt, prices of Puerto Rico's benchmark debt have tumbled to fresh lows as investors speculate that any payouts will be less than previously anticipated.
Puerto Rico is considering suspending debt-service payments for five years, a lead lawyer for the territory's federal oversight board said this week, in the first indication of how the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria will affect the restructuring of the island's debt.
A moratorium may be included as part of Puerto Rico's plan to reduce what it owes through bankruptcy, Martin Bienenstock, a partner at Proskauer Rose who represents the panel, said at a court hearing Wednesday in Manhattan. It wasn't immediately clear whether such a step would apply to all of the government's $74 billion of debt.
"Bondholders need the island to turn the corner and start seeing some green shoots," said Matt Dalton, chief executive officer of Rye Brook, N.Y.-based Belle Haven Investments, which manages $6.5 billion of municipal bonds, including insured Puerto Rico debt. "I would think that any money pouring into the island would be a good thing without focusing on what the total number is."
He said lawmakers may want to see the impact of the initial aid in Puerto Rico and could give the island more money later. "If you give them everything they want up front, they're still likely to ask for more, because it'll never be enough," Dalton said.
No matter how much the island gets, it won't be enough, said Matt Fabian, a partner with Municipal Market Analytics.
"Puerto Rico will likely be requesting aid this time next year," he said. Officials in the White House "probably think that that's an incredibly generous offer."
Information for this article was contributed by Andrew Taylor, Ken Thomas and Will Weissert of The Associated Press and by Erik Wasson, Rebecca Spalding, Amanda Albright and Justina Vasquez of Bloomberg News.
A Section on 11/18/2017
Print Headline: Storm-ravaged regions call $44B too little