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White House Requests More Disaster Aid but Also Seeks Cuts as Deficits Rise

By admin | November 20, 2017

Republicans have been conspicuously quiet about the ballooning national debt as they press to enact deep tax cuts before the end of the year. The deficit for the 2017 fiscal year totaled $666 billion, an increase of $80 billion from the previous year. And spending continues to climb.

Disaster relief costs are now approaching $100 billion, with more likely to come. And congressional leaders are eyeing a deal that would allow nondefense and military spending to burst through strict caps put in place in 2011, when Republican leaders made fiscal rectitude a central organizing principle.

The latest disaster request seemed to indicate that deficit concerns may be rising, at least in the White House. Administration officials laid out a menu of options for budget cutting, totaling $59 billion, from small nicks like $8 million from a rural energy program to far larger options, such as $3.9 billion from student financial aid and $1 billion from transportation infrastructure funds.

Some of those proposals were sure to raise eyebrows. To pay for hurricane reconstruction, the White House suggested cutting nearly $520 million from the Army Corps of Engineers’ flood control and coastal emergencies account, which the White House identified as excess money from Hurricane Sandy relief.

But those suggestions were hardly strenuous: The president’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, wrote that “the administration believes it is prudent to offset new spending.”

And on Capitol Hill, a number of lawmakers from both parties are eager to spend more money, not less. Congress approved one disaster measure in September and another in October. If lawmakers provide the newly requested funding, the tab for disaster relief approved by Congress in response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, as well as the wildfires in Western states, would total about $96 billion.

It was not lost on Democrats that the administration suggested offsetting the cost of disaster relief but has offered no such concern for the far larger cost of the proposed tax cuts.

“Just one day after pushing the House to pass a massive tax cut for corporations and the wealthy that would add $1.5 trillion to the debt, it is galling that the administration is requesting offsets in exchange for helping Americans rebuild their lives,” said Representative Nita M. Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. “Holding vital recovery funding hostage to unrelated and often divisive spending debates is wrong, and only delays fulfillment of our obligation to help disaster victims.”

The latest relief request was swiftly dismissed as inadequate. Even before the request had been officially released, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said his staff had advised him that it was “wholly inadequate.”

“After the outpouring of sympathy and the expressions of concern that we’ve heard from the highest levels here in Washington, D.C., we’ve continually been told to wait, wait, wait,” Mr. Cornyn said.

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, said on Friday that the Trump administration “must keep its repeated commitments” to provide the necessary funding to help Texas recover from Harvey.

He then offered a reminder: “The constitutional responsibility to appropriate funding resides with Congress.”

Representative John Culberson, Republican of Texas, deemed the request “very disappointing” and “completely inadequate,” and said it showed a “complete lack of understanding of the fundamental needs of Texans” by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“Thankfully, Congress funds the government — not O.M.B.,” Mr. Culberson said.

Democrats, too, insisted that the White House request fell far short of what was needed.Representatives Mike Thompson and Jared Huffman, both Democrats of California, were incensed that the request specified no money for Northern California, which was ravaged last month by wildfires.

“This is a new low for this administration,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement. “Either they have forgotten about the thousands of American citizens who’ve lost everything in the California fires, or they just don’t care.”

Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, called the funding request “wholly inadequate and downright insulting,” saying it was particularly insufficient for Puerto Rico.

Mr. Leahy said he had received requests for more than $180 billion in federal aid in response to Harvey, Irma and Maria.

“This request doesn’t come even close to meeting those needs,” he said.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, defended the size of the request on Friday.

“I don’t think $44 billion is a low amount,” she said. “We did a thorough assessment, and that was completed, and this was the number that we put forward.”

Lawmakers are already facing a swirl of issues when they return to the Capitol after Thanksgiving, on top of the tax effort.

They will need to find a way to avoid a government shutdown in December. The current short-term spending measure expires Dec. 8, and they will need to pass a spending package by then — or another stopgap measure — to keep the government open.

Before a spending package can be hammered out, congressional leaders are seeking a deal to raise the caps on the spending at their annual discretion that were imposed in 2011. Democrats are pushing to increase nondefense spending by as much as military spending is increased. Defense hawks are seeking a sizable increase in military spending, a position reiterated on Friday by the leaders of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, Senator John McCain of Arizona and Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, both Republicans.

“This era of forcing our troops to do more with less must come to end,” they said in a joint statement.

Then there is the tax overhaul, which Republicans hope will become the first marquee legislative achievement of the Trump presidency.

The overhaul could add as much as $1.5 trillion to federal budget deficits over a decade.

Just before the House’s tax bill passed on Thursday, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, practically taunted the fiscal conservatives who were about to vote for it.

“Oh where oh where are the deficit hawks? Have you become extinct?” she asked. “Is there not one among you who understands what this does to the national debt?”

In the Senate, the deficit looms as a major issue — not because many Republicans are talking about it, but because Republican leaders can afford to lose no more than two of their members, and a handful have expressed concerns about how the overhaul could pile up more debt.

Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, is one.

“I remain concerned over how the current tax reform proposals will grow the already staggering national debt by opting for short-term fixes while ignoring long-term problems for taxpayers and the economy,” he said last week.

Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, is another. Mr. Corker has said he will not vote for a tax plan that he concludes will add to the deficit, after accounting for economic growth. On Thursday, he posted on Twitter a news article about negotiations to raise the spending caps.

“We’re $20 trillion in debt,” Mr. Corker wrote, “and it’s party like there’s no tomorrow time in Washington.”

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