As Nate looms, cost of federal hurricane disaster relief grows

Published: Thursday, October 05, 2017 @ 9:04 PM

While President Donald Trump said this week that disaster aid efforts in Puerto Rico for Hurricane Maria were “throwing our budget a little of whack,” the reality is that the relief numbers are quickly growing overall as the feds help deliver aid to those hit hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, with Tropical Storm Nate now possibly ready to take aim at the Gulf Coast as well.

The White House on Wednesday sent Congress a $29 billion request for extra disaster relief funds, which GOP leaders say will be voted on in the House next week, as the Trump Administration acknowledged the cost is not small change.

“The Federal Government alone is obligating close to $200 million per day for
recovery activities,” White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney wrote in a letter to Congressional leaders, as he asked for almost $13 billion to go into FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund.

But even as that was landing in the lap of lawmakers, leading elected officials in Texas asked the Congress to add in another $18.7 billion – just to deal with the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Lone Star State.

“Texas greatly appreciates the appropriations committees’ efforts to swiftly provide funds,” the Governor, both Senators and most lawmakers from the Texas Congressional delegation wrote in a joint letter.

“However, in light of the unprecedented damage from Hurricane Harvey and the historically epochal flooding of Houston, Beaumont and surrounding regions, we all recognize that the funding already appropriated is a small fraction of the federal resources needed to help rebuild Texas and reinvigorate the American economy,” they added.

The Texas-specific disaster aid request is for:

+ $10 billion to repair and rehab U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water projects, and damage to ports in the Lone Star State.

+ $7 billion for Community Development Block Grants, though the letter noted that Texas really needs “over $40 billion” in those funds.

+ $800 million in emergency aid to educational institutions.

+ $450 million in small business disaster loans.

+ $300 million in Economic Development Administration grants.

+ $150 million in money to help repair damaged infrastructure.

While the almost $19 billion request from the state of Texas might seem to be a lot of money, Governor Greg Abbott said a month ago that he felt his state would need more than $100 billion in aid from Uncle Sam.

While Republicans pressed the need for offsetting budget cuts to pay for disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012, no such plans have been put forward this year by either the Trump Administration or GOP lawmakers in Congress.

That means – and this has been standard procedure for disaster aid – that the final tab is simply added to the federal deficit.

White House officials have made clear that the $29 billion request – which could be changed by the Congress – probably won’t be the last in 2017.

“It can take up to 90 days after a major hurricane to finalize recovery cost estimates, and the Administration is committed to properly quantifying the costs of the necessary permanent repair work as quickly as possible,” the White House budget chief wrote.

As for the aftermath of Maria, Vice President Mike Pence will be in Puerto Rico on Friday to review disaster relief efforts there.

Pence told an audience in Florida on Thursday evening that the Trump Administration will do all it can to help those hit by Hurricane Maria.

“Our message will be simple, we are with you, we stand with you and we will be with you every step of the way,” Pence said.

“This will be a long process, and this next round of funds certainly won’t be all that is needed,” said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

And that will cost billions as well.

Portman on controversial DEA bill: ‘It slipped through’

Published: Wednesday, October 18, 2017 @ 4:30 PM
Updated: Wednesday, October 18, 2017 @ 4:15 PM

            Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Sen. Rob Portman Wednesday said he was unaware of the details of a 2016 bill that effectively quashed the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to stop distributors from sending prescription drugs to doctors’ offices and pharmacies that fed the opioid epidemic.

The law passed by unanimous consent — a voice vote, with no members of the House or Senate opposing it. While members of the DEA and Justice Department told Washington Post and 60 Minutes reporters that they opposed the legislation, no one in Portman’s office was aware of the agencies’ concerns, he told a Washington Post panel convened Wednesday to discuss the epidemic.

“I frankly asked my office, ‘Did we hear from anybody?’ and the answer was no,” the Ohio Republican said.

RELATED: Congress investigating local drug distributor

Portman said the bill went through Congress at the same time his own drug treatment bill — the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act — went through Congress, and much of the focus was on that bill. The DEA bill, he said, “sort of slipped through.”

Speaking with Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., Portman said he and other senators plan to review the law, which effectively made it far tougher for the DEA to crack down on those pouring pain pills into communities. Portman has focused heavily on drug addiction issues dating back to his time in the House of Representatives, and during his 2016 re-election campaign for the Senate he ran ads highlighting his work fighting the opioid epidemic.

RELATED: Former drug czar nominee defends roll in opioid law

The Post story is largely credited with causing Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., to withdraw his name from nomination to be the nation’s next drug czar. Marino was a leading cosponsor of the 2016 bill, as was Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican who is now running for governor.

Portman wasn’t the only one who said he was unaware of the implications of the bill Wednesday. Manchin said his staff was “not intricately involved” and was told it was aimed at ensuring that cancer patients and the terminally ill had access to pain relief — not that it could make it harder for the DEA to crack down on those purposefully dealing pills.

RELATED: Portman wants opioid money added to health care bill

“We never intended it to be a wholesale market to open up the floodgates,” he said. “Because in West Virginia, the floodgates were already open.”

Manchin has cosponsored a bill aimed at repealing the 2016 law. “No one intended for this to happen,” he said.

Trump leaves both parties confused on Senate health care deal

Published: Wednesday, October 18, 2017 @ 12:49 PM

A day after seemingly endorsing a legislative effort in Congress to formally approve money for insurance companies that would pay for health insurance subsidies for certain consumers, President Donald Trump indicated on Wednesday that while he backed the idea of bipartisan negotiations related to the Obama health law, he did not support a deal on “Cost Sharing Reduction” payments, .

“If something can happen that’s fine,” Mr. Trump told reporters at a White House photo op, as he made clear that he wants to stop insurance subsidy payments that go to health insurers.

“I won’t do anything to enrich the insurance companies,” the President said. “They’ve been enriched by Obamacare like nothing anyone has ever seen before.”

The statements left lawmakers on Capitol Hill wondering whether Mr. Trump would help push the plan through the Congress, or if it would galvanize more conservative opponents, as in less than 24 hours, the President had gone from supportive, to mildly unimpressed, to seemingly opposed to the plan.

“He called Murray-Alexander deal a very good solution,” said Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer. “Now this morning, he says he can’t support it.”
“He keeps zigging and zagging,” Schumer complained in a frustrated, and almost exasperated tone on the floor of the Senate, as he urged the President to be consistent when it comes to legislation in Congress.

“Our only hope is, maybe tomorrow, he’ll be for this again,” Schumer added.

As the President pinballed back and forth on the Senate CSR payments deal, it wasn’t clear what the Congress might do on the matter, as conservative groups urged GOP leaders not to accept the plan, saying it only tweaks the Obama health law, and not in a good way.

“This is a bailout for health insurance companies,” the group Freedom Works said in a morning news release.

Health insurance experts were still debating the Senate plan, unsure of all of its impacts, especially since there was no final bill draft at this point – and no plan for any vote on it, either.

Trump presses tax reform as Senate begins debate on GOP budget outline

Published: Wednesday, October 18, 2017 @ 2:08 AM

President Donald Trump urged conservative activists on Tuesday night to help lobby Senators in favor of a GOP tax reform package, as despite some infighting, Republicans seemed like they would be able to approve a budget outline this week in the Senate, a plan which would allow for future legislative action on a tax bill – without the threat of a Senate filibuster.

“Let’s give our country the best Christmas present of all – massive tax relief,” the President said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, where his vow of big tax cuts drew large cheers from the audience.

“This is our once-in-a-generation opportunity to revive our economy,” Mr. Trump added, though he acknowledged that he doesn’t expect much support from Democrats in the Congress.

Before any tax bill can be brought up on the floor of the House and Senate, both chambers must approve a budget outline for 2018, which authorizes the use of the ‘budget reconciliation’ process for tax reform – helping the GOP to avoid a Senate filibuster. That was the same legislative tool used in a failed bid to overhaul the Obama health law.

In an important sign for the White House, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) – who had been absent for weeks with an illness, returned to Capitol Hill on Tuesday – and then, GOP leaders won the support of another key Republican Senator, who has tangled repeatedly with the President.

“I support the Senate budget resolution because it provides a path forward on tax reform,” said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who still wants GOP leaders to add more money to the budget outline for military needs.

Still not ready to commit to the budget or tax plans was Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who lobbed a series of pointed jabs at both McCain, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), accusing them of trying to use budget gimmicks to funnel more money to the Pentagon, instead of finding ways to restrain spending.

In a first test vote, the Senate voted 50-47 in favor of beginning debate on the budget framework for 2018, which would balance the budget by 2026. A House budget outline would achieve that a year later.

No Democrats joined with Republicans to begin the Senate debate, as right now, the White House faces a difficult task in getting any Democratic lawmakers to endorse the President’s budget or tax plans.

“It’s going to be hard to get the Democrats, because they’re obstructionists, and they vote in blocks,” the President said in his Tuesday night speech.

If no Democrats cross party lines on taxes, that makes it all the more important for the GOP to stick together in the Senate, or the GOP could face the same outcome as on health care reform.

No legislative language for a tax reform plan has been released as yet by the GOP. Lawmakers don’t expect to see all the details until next month.

With backing of Trump, key Senators reach deal to fund health subsidy payments

Published: Tuesday, October 17, 2017 @ 2:37 PM

Key Senators say they have reached a deal – backed by the President – which would fund payments to health insurance companies for two years, while also giving states more flexibility in how they deal with the underlying requirements of the Obama health law.

“Yes, we have been involved,” President Donald Trump told reporters when asked about the negotiations. “This is a short-term deal,” as the President again said he hopes to get Congress to approve a set of longer-term reforms which revolve around block grants to the states.

The plan, worked out by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), was discussed by Senators at their Tuesday lunch meetings in the U.S. Capitol; no legislative text was immediately available.

The deal would reverse a decision made last Thursday night by President Trump, who moved to stop payments to insurance companies known as “Cost Sharing Reduction” payments.

Republicans have claimed for several years – and federal courts have backed them up – that the payments were never directly approved by the Congress, and thus should never have been made by the federal government.

Mr. Trump authorized the payments from the start of his administration in January, but regularly threatened to end them – following through on that late last week.