WASHINGTON – Immigration policy. Border wall. Children’s health care.
The U.S. government teetered on the edge of a shutdown on Thursday as players from both parties tried to leverage those issues into passing a spending a bill. But once again, Hurricane Harvey disaster funding seemed to fall by the wayside in Congress as the two chambers scrambled to avert another crisis.
Texans made headway in securing disaster funding just before the holiday break, teaming up with the Florida delegation. An $ 81 billion disaster relief measure passed the U.S. House after members of both delegations implicitly threatened to shut down the government in December.
But the package stalled in the Senate, and now concern is growing in Washington.
“We are freaking out,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who represents Miami. “We’ve gotten some, ‘Don’t worry about, don’t worry about,’ pats, but we’re worried about it.”
Negotiations between the two parties and the two branches were increasingly unstable on Thursday as political observers began to seriously think through the immediate and long-term consequences of a government shutdown.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, and her caucus vehemently opposed passing any sort of a spending bill if Congress would not come to an agreement over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which temporarily protects immigrants who were brought into the country as children from deportation. At the same time, conservatives pressured Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan over other spending.
It appeared the best hope to avoid a shutdown was to pass a short-term spending resolution for the next month that would also include funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, another long-stalled issue. But even if Ryan could cobble together the votes needed to move on that legislation, there were no assurances that it would pass the Senate.
All the while, disaster relief barely registered as a priority in the negotiations. Had the Texans and Floridians revisited their previous shutdown threats, the negotiations likely would have collapsed outright.
And so anxiety and hope are the two strongest emotions in the Texas delegation.
On the House side, the most important Texan in the negotiations is U.S. Rep. John Culberson, a Republican. He is the lone member of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee who is from Houston, and sources in that committee tell the Tribune he is at the center of the Texas-Florida bipartisan nexus.
“I’m anxious and concerned that the Senate hasn’t passed it yet,” he said. “But I have great faith in Sen. Cornyn and Sen. Cruz to get it done.”
U.S. Rep. Gene Green, a Houston Democrat, also expressed concern.
“Most Texans aren’t happy with that $ 82 billion — or whatever it is — because it doesn’t match what we wanted,” he said. “But it is a vehicle leaving, and we don’t want to stand in the way when it does help us, [even though it is] not as much as we want.”
“We are going to try and go back again,” he added. “But I was hoping they would at least get this one done.”
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, another Houston Republican, expressed little worry about whether the disaster funding would eventually pass — he was mostly concerned about the process. He wants hurricane funding to pass as a stand-alone measure and not tied to other legislation.
“I hope the Senate acts, and acts expeditiously to provide the relief that is needed,” he said. “I am worried that the longer the delay goes on, the greater the risk is of hurricane relief getting swept into [larger spending bills] and being held hostage on unrelated policies.”
He, Cornyn and other GOP members of the delegation came under fire even before the rain stopped falling in Texas for not supporting disaster relief for superstorm Sandy that hit the New York and New Jersey coasts.
While the northeasterners ripped the Texans for perceived hypocrisy at the time, there is little evidence they are anxious to inflict misery on Texans now. Instead, the biggest fear in the Texas delegation about moving legislation is that with the wild news cycle, the world has simply moved on and forgotten about Harvey’s damage.
Much of the pressure going forward rests on Cornyn’s shoulders. He is, after all, the second-ranking Republican in the upper chamber, has the better relationships in the Senate and is the senior senator.
And there’s even some hope that the bill could improve in the Senate appropriations process and be worth the delay.
Even Ros-Lehtinen, the worried Florida Republican, scaled back her remarks to the Tribune.
“The Florida delegation is doing a modified freak out — not full-blown panic yet.”