By ANDREW TAYLOR, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration is finalizing a $29 billion disaster aid package that combines $16 billion to shore up the government-backed flood insurance program with almost $13 billion for hurricane victims, according to a senior administration official and congressional aides.
Outlines of the request, expected to be sent to Congress on Wednesday, were characterized by officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the measure was not yet public.
The government-guaranteed flood insurance program is on track to run out of money to pay claims during the week of Oct. 23. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is continuing to spend money for relief operations for hurricane Harvey, Irma and Maria at a high rate and requires more money.
The flood insurance program is maxing out on a $30 billion line of credit from Treasury. The upcoming proposal would wipe away $16 billion of that debt and permit the program to pay claims from hurricane victims.
Almost $13 billion is being requested for FEMA. Federal firefighting accounts would receive $577 million as well to replenish them after a disastrous season of Western wildfires.
“This is going to be extraordinarily expensive and I think we need to get some money out there,” said the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he had met with lawmakers from Texas and Florida on Tuesday to brief them on the White House request.
“Remember, this is emergency money. You’ve got to deal with the problem,” McCarthy told reporters. “So I think we’ll be able to get this done.”
The request could prove contentious, especially the infusion for the flood insurance program. Conservatives are likely to liken it to a taxpayer bailout, but the program is enormously important to homeowners in hurricane-ravaged Texas and Florida, as well as other coastal states.
Congress is in the midst of an effort to reauthorize the program, which critics say makes taxpayers subsidize properties that have repeatedly flooded. A bipartisan effort to reform the program was enacted in 2012. It was significantly watered down just two years later after complaints of huge premium increases and resulting disruptions in coastal real estate markets.
Congress last month approved a $15.3 billion aid package that nearly doubled President Donald Trump’s request. Senate Republicans added $7.4 billion in community development block grant rebuilding funds to Trump’s request for immediate cleanup, repair and housing costs.
Trump raised eyebrows in a Tuesday interview with Fox News when he said the Puerto Rican government’s debt would have to be “wiped out.”
“They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street and we’re going to have to wipe that out,” Trump said.
But on Wednesday, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters that “we are not going to be offering a bailout for Puerto Rico or for its current bondholders.”
Later this year, the White House is expected to require tens of billions of dollars more in long-term funds that would rebuild infrastructure, help people without insurance restore their homes, and, perhaps, help Puerto Rico reconstitute its shattered electrical grid.
Trump surveyed hurricane damage in Puerto Rico on Tuesday. He praised his administration’s response, even as lawmakers returning from the island say the president is painting far too rosy a picture.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., the situation there presents more difficult challenges than disasters in the continental U.S. For instance, without power or internet service, victims of Maria can’t go online to register for aid. Housing vouchers are largely useless since the entire Island is devastated. He said many thousands of Puerto Ricans will need to be evacuated to the U.S. mainland.