Harvey aid promised as Congress votes to reopen government

January 23, 2018 GMT

WASHINGTON – The federal government is back in business and hurricane relief for Texas and other disaster-stricken states is back on the table.

The Senate agreement that ended a three-day government shutdown Monday breathed new life into a crowded backlog of issues, including a long-delayed disaster relief package that got caught up in a broader funding dispute.

The Senate approved the deal 81 to 18, with all but a handful of holdouts in both parties. The House followed suit shortly thereafter by a mostly party-line vote of 266 to 150. Only two Texans crossed party lines in the House: Democrats Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen, who voted to and the shutdown.

President Donald Trump was expected to sign the bill quickly.

In committing to Democratic demands that the Senate bring up an immigration bill by February 8 – the new government funding deadline – Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also signaled that would be a target date for resolving a legislative logjam on other issues as well, including “disaster relief.”

It remains to be seen if lawmakers can resolve their differences on the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. But McConnell’s promise of Senate action on a House-passed $81 billion recovery package for Hurricane Harvey and other natural disasters represented the first that has been tied to a specific date.

“I hope and intend that we can reach bipartisan solutions on issues such as military spending, immigration and border security, and disaster relief before this February 8th deadline,” McConnell said.

McConnell warned, however, that progress would depend on avoiding another government shutdown, which remains a distinct possibility in 17 days given the raw feelings over the immigration battle that closed the government at midnight Friday.

“Should these issues not be resolved by the time the funding bill before us expires on February 8th, so long as the government remains open it – so long as it remains open – it would be my intention to take up legislation here in the Senate that would address DACA, border security, and related issues – as well as disaster relief, defense funding, health care, and other important matters.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he was agreeing to the bargain to reopen government based on McConnell’s assurance that the Senate would “immediately proceed” to immigration legislation if a deal to address the expiring DACA program isn’t struck by the February 8 deadline for the new stop-gap funding measure.

Republicans clearly felt they had the upper hand in the negotiations, with President Donald Trump taunting on Twitter: “Democrats have shut down our government in the interests of their far left base. They don’t want to do it but are powerless!”

Though an immigration deal might still be a heavy lift for leaders in a starkly polarized Congress, the disaster aid has a leg up, having been approved by the House in December. That leaves it up to the Senate, where the disaster money remains mired in the same annual budget fight that broke down on immigration.

Immigration, border issues

Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, McConnell’s top lieutenant in the Senate, expressed confidence in a bipartisan breakthrough on border security and DACA after a White House meeting Monday with other Republican senators.

“I think we can demonstrate our natural American compassion when it comes to immigrants,” Cornyn said, emphasizing his commitment to Texas’ estimated 124,000 “Dreamers,” or DACA beneficiaries. “I have a personal interest is making sure we can come up with a bipartisan solution,” he said.

Cornyn also said that he sees a “natural symmetry,” between legal relief for Dreamers and stronger border security, which he said should include infrastructure, technology and “boots on the ground.”

He added that Texas, with some 800 miles of the nearly 2,000 mile border with Mexico, has borne many of those costs until now.

But Democrats questioned Trump’s commitment to working out a bipartisan solution after his campaign released a 30-second online video saying that those who stand in the way of his border plan “will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants.”

Democrats also faced withering blowback from immigration activists who accused them of abandoning Dreamers by giving in to Republicans’ demand for a three-week government funding extension.

“Today’s cave by Senate Democrats -- led by weak-kneed, right-of-center Democrats -- is why people don’t believe the Democratic Party stands for anything, Stephanie Taylor, co-founder, Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “These weak Democrats hurt the party brand for everyone and make it harder to elect Democrats everywhere in 2018.”

Trump has set a March 5 deadline to extend the DACA program, which he says he would support as long as it’s done by an act of Congress. But he has also attached conditions, including tighter restrictions on legal immigration and some version of a border wall.

For many conservatives, two touchstones in the negotiations involve moving to a “merit” system of awarding visas, rather than through current “diversity” lottery, and curtailing family sponsorships, which critics call “chain migration.”

Among Trump’s strongest allies on border security in the Senate is Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. “I think it would be a serious mistake for us to pass an amnesty bill providing amnesty and a path to citizenship for millions of people here illegally, along with chain migration,” he told reporters Monday.

Conservative groups also vowed to keep up the pressure.

“As Congress continues to discuss and potentially act on legislation that addresses the status of 690,000 DACA recipients, it must not ignore the elephant in the room: chain migration,” said Michael Needham, chief executive officer of Heritage Action.

“With this shutdown, congressional Democrats made clear they believe in sweeping amnesty for illegal immigrants and a path to citizenship for their distant relatives. That is a non-starter,” Needham added.

Disaster aid

Although the $81 billion in disaster aid was not included in the original stopgap funding measure that led to Saturday’s government shutdown, it became a political football in weekend standoff over DACA beneficiaries, or “Dreamers.”

Houston Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee pointed to the absence of disaster funding – along with the failure to include a DACA fix – as a reason she voted against last week’s funding patch, which would have run until February 16.

Republicans countered that by voting against keeping the government open last week Democrats were to blame for delaying relief for people affected by Harvey.

“While the House of Representatives has voted on an $81 billion disaster relief package, because of the hold up here – again, because our Democratic colleagues in the Senate think that this DACA issue is more important than the victims of natural disasters, not to mention the wildfires out west – that’s been put on ice as well,” Cornyn said.

With the government reopened, Houston lawmakers vowed to make Harvey the priority it was in the first weeks after the August hurricane, one of the most catastrophic on record.

“As Congress negotiates over the next few weeks on a longer term funding deal, passing a hurricane recovery bill remains my top priority,” said Houston Republican John Culberson, a top Democratic target in 2018. “Houston has suffered three catastrophic floods in the last three years, and we cannot wait another fifteen to twenty years to finish the flood control projects that must be built to protect our city.”