The Senate has approved the first wave of disaster aid – a $15.3bn relief package – to the region devastated by Hurricane Harvey, as part of a surprise deal struck between Donald Trump and Democratic leaders.
The bill to help the recovery in Texas – and particularly the area around Houston – would also temporarily raise the US federal borrowing limit and keep the government running for the next three months.
The agreement, passed by 80 votes to 17, defuses the immediate threat of a government shutdown. But Congress now faces an 8 December deadline to strike another agreement and avoid a fiscal cliff.
The aid package, nearly double Trump’s initial request, now goes to the House of Representatives, where a group of more than 150 conservative Republicans have announced their opposition to the plan.
Before the Senate vote, the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said on the floor: “It will provide certainty and stability for first responder, state officials and the many others involved in preparing for and recovering from these storms with critically needed emergency funds that will not be interrupted by the prospect of a shutdown or default … Let’s work together and act on this legislation very quickly.”
On Wednesday, Trump met congressional leaders of both parties in the Oval Office. The Democrats left with Trump having agreed to a three-month extensionon the debt ceiling and government funding, a move that infuriated the president’s own party, which had proposed a longer extension.
After the meeting, McConnell stated bluntly that Trump “agreed with Senator Schumer and Congresswoman Pelosi” on a three-month funding extension.
“The president can speak for himself, but his feeling was that we needed to come together to not create a picture of divisiveness at a time of genuine national crisis,” the Senate leader said on Wednesday. Later that night, McConnell added added $7.4bn in funding to rebuild after the storm, which comes in addition to Trump’s $7.9bn request to respond to the areas devastated by Harvey in Texas and parts of Louisiana.
Some Republicans balked at the deal, arguing that it gave Democrats an advantage during the looming fiscal battle postponed to the end of the year.
Speaking before the vote, Senator Ben Sasse, a conservative Republican from Nebraska who opposed the bill, said the agreement made Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer “the most powerful man in America for the month of December” when the debt ceiling will be renegotiated.
“What we’re doing in this body today is not draining the swamp,” Sasse said in a speech on the Senate floor. “What we’re doing is running a whole bunch of hoses to the edge of the swamp, turning them on to the highest possible volume flow, and then turning our backs on the swamp and shouting: ‘There’s nothing to see here.’”
Democrats, too, expressed exasperation that Congress has been unable to pass a long-term budget.
Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, declared after the vote: “Nobody should be happy with what Congress did today.” He said Congress had accomplished the “bare minimum” and simply “kicked the can down the road” for future fights over the US debt.
Despite widespread concern among GOP lawmakers that Trump caved to Democrats, House speaker Paul Ryan said he understood the president’s motivations.
“The president made it really clear and what he was aiming for in that meeting yesterday was a bipartisan moment while the country is facing two horrible hurricanes,” Ryan said on Thursday.
“Personally I think the debt limit and the credit markets, the longer the better for the stability of the credit market. That’s my strong opinion.”
In a morning press conference, Pelosi could barely mask her satisfaction at the unexpected turn of events. She pushed back on the assertion that postponing the debate by such a short window could imperil economic markets.
“Wall Street is Wall Street,” Pelosi said. “Here, the currency of the realm is the vote.” Republicans need Democrats’ votes to pass the budget measures in the Senate.
In the House, conservatives, who are typically the first to defend the president’s positions, find themselves at odds with him over pairing aid with debt and spending measures. On Thursday morning, the House Republican study committee condemned the agreement, saying that it “continues the status quo or even worsens the trajectory on spending”. The committee said it would not support the proposal.