Hurricane Harvey—and the devastation it continues to wreak across eastern Texas—is throwing a wrench in President Donald Trump’s attempts to secure immediate funding for the construction of a wall on the southern border.
A sense of urgency to quickly address the devastation in Texas is causing members of Congress, particularly those in the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus, to prioritize a relief package for the victims of the storm and sign onto a short-term government funding bill that delays a highly anticipated battle over funding for the controversial border wall.
“I’m hoping that with this catastrophic flood, that everybody will take their foot off the gas pedal a little bit,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), the chairman of the influential Republican Study Committee, told The Daily Beast in an interview. “Number one on our list is human life.”
“And are these things important? Yes.” Walker added, referring to the border wall. “But it’s hard to focus a little bit on policy and partisanship right now when we’ve got people suffering to the level that they are.”
Congress is not expected to approve one large relief package off the bat when they return to Washington next week, Republican aides and lawmakers told The Daily Beast. Instead, they are likely to allocate funds in phases. Lawmakers are aiming to take the first legislative step next week following a meeting Trump is having with House and Senate leaders at the White House.
A GOP-proposed spending bill cuts $900 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster fund and transfers it as a down payment on the border wall. That cut would likely be reversed as Congress begins to craft a Harvey relief package, the AP reported, meaning Republicans will have to come up with the remaining money to fund the $1.6 billion down payment that was approved last month.
The disaster complicates Republicans’ plans—and Trump’s hope—that border wall money be included in any government funding bill. The necessity of keeping the government’s lights on in the wake of the hurricane’s destruction is trumping any sense of urgency on border wall construction.
The federal government is set to run out of money on September 30, and the debt ceiling must be raised by September 29. And with just 12 legislative days to work with next month, conservative lawmakers might have to bite the bullet and sign onto a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government for just a few months at current spending levels, essentially kicking the can down the road on key funding battles—including money for the wall on the southern border.
“At what point do we get back to doing a normal appropriations process? Why did we not stay in in August to actually move the bills through the House?” a frustrated Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, said Wednesday in an interview. “Certainly the timeframe for the Senate to act is not adequate in the month of September. And so I’ve for months been anticipating a short-term continuing resolution. … Is it my first choice? No. Is it a surprise? Absolutely not.”
And that’s exactly what Congress will do. Despite calls for a bipartisan, bicameral budget agreement, it would be nearly impossible to put one together in less than a month. Moreover, the House Appropriations Committee told its staff last week that they’ve decided on a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government beyond September, an aide told The Daily Beast.
Meadows stressed that the House Freedom Caucus hasn’t taken an official position on whether its members would support the short-term funding measure. But he told ABC News this week that “the majority” of Freedom Caucus members would vote for a continuing resolution without border wall funding. He also acknowledged to The Daily Beast that Trump’s desire for border wall funding “continues to be a stumbling block” among lawmakers, meaning it’s more likely that congressional Republicans punt on the border wall until after September.
“Emergencies happen, so we need contingency funds for those. And we have to plan accordingly and have enough bumper. We can’t always be cutting it close at the last minute doing these end of the year budget negotiations,” Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) told The Daily Beast.
Brat wouldn’t commit to voting for a short-term continuing resolution that has no border wall funding attached to it, but said he could be inclined to support it if he’s given proper assurances from GOP leadership.
“It probably depends on whether we’re going to get a good overall package—that when we come back to do the budget and we see how the debt ceiling increase is handled and … how we do the budget—if we think we’re making progress on all of those, then you can compromise maybe for a few months,” Brat said.
But other Republicans on Capitol Hill view the Freedom Caucus’ jostling with leadership as simply a negotiating tactic.
“The Freedom Caucus is punting on wall funding so they have the wall as a bargaining chip for later when spending negotiations are more likely to get traction. They know their odds of a deal increase when they are yoked to Trump. They aren't going to waste getting him the wall when they won't get anything to show for it,” a GOP aide not affiliated with the Freedom Caucus told The Daily Beast.
After Trump issued a vague threat suggesting he would force a government shutdown if he doesn’t get sufficient funding for the border wall, Republicans on Capitol Hill insisted that it would be naive to assume Congress would do anything other than kick the can down the road. Walker, the Republican Study Committee chairman, called the threat “concerning.” Other Republicans simply believe Trump is still caught between his campaign promises and the political realities on Capitol Hill.
Conservatives already have diminished leverage heading into the September sprint. While the vast majority of Republicans are pushing for spending cuts to be part of a debt ceiling hike, the Trump administration has said it wants Congress to pass a “clean,” no-strings-attached increase so as to avoid a default on loan payments and potentially catastrophic consequences for the U.S. economy and financial markets.
“In the past, we would’ve never considered putting a clean debt ceiling increase on a Democrat president’s desk without any reform whatsoever included. So why would you do that when you have a Republican House, Senate and president?” Brat said.
Republican leaders have pledged to act before the deadlines to keep the government’s lights on and raise the debt ceiling. But with other important government programs set to expire at the end of the month—including the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Flood Insurance Program—and just 12 working days to get it done, Congress is cutting it close.
And conservative lawmakers are expected to channel their constituents’ anger over the failure to repeal and replace Obamacare into renewed pressure on Republican leaders to listen to their demands—even if it means caving on border wall funding just this one time.
“Our constituents are probably as angry as I’ve ever seen them with the lack of results. If that anger is not focused in a way that produces real results, it will have dire consequences for any sitting member of Congress,” Meadows said. “If we don’t get on board with accomplishing what [Trump] campaigned on, then they’re finished supporting anybody no matter how conservative their credentials may be, and that includes myself.”