WASHINGTON — Congress is once again facing a self-inflicted fiscal crisis, and some urgent short-term funding needs — including more emergency assistance to help recover from floods in New England and other major US disasters — could be derailed in the chaos.
Barely three months after dodging a default with a deal to raise the debt limit, senators returned from their summer recess this week and began rushing to approve funding bills to keep the federal government operating beyond Sept. 30, when this fiscal year’s budget expires. But their effort is likely to be stalled in the Republican-controlled House, where a group of conservatives is demanding deeper spending cuts than their leadership agreed to with President Biden in the debt limit agreement and is threatening to trigger a government shutdown.
The spending objections from those House Republicans extend beyond the pending 2024 budget bills to a special $44 billion funding request from the White House to address needs that have increased this summer. That legislation includes $24 billion for Ukraine to fight Russia’s invasion, $16 billion in additional aid for victims of this summer’s natural disasters, including the Maui wildfires, and $1.4 billion for a food assistance for women, infants, and children that has seen demand surge because of the pandemic.
“The chaos in the House puts every piece of government at risk, including disaster aid,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat who has been working with her New England colleagues to replenish the coffers of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Vermont suffered the most damage from July storms that hit western New England and more money is desperately needed as farmers and others are still assessing the damage, said Senator Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat. In early August, Biden asked Congress for $12 billion more for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund. He added $4 billion to the request late last month after Hurricane Idalia hit Florida.
The $44 billion package could be approved on its own or as part of a temporary spending bill to keep the government open after Sept. 30 if no broader budget deal is reached by then. Or those efforts could be blocked by House Republicans.
But Welch said he’s hopeful that, at least on disaster aid, they’ll realize the need, especially because some Republican lawmakers in Florida and other states also want the assistance.
“I think it’s so shameful to essentially leverage the desperate circumstances of people whose homes have been burned down or whose homes have been flooded to get your way on something completely unrelated,” Welch said. “So if there’s any shame left in some of these folks who want to shut the government down, they’ll find a way to let us get the FEMA aid.”
Western Massachusetts flooding victims aren’t eligible for FEMA aid because the damage has not been declared a presidential disaster, but Warren and the state’s other senator, Democrat Ed Markey, are working with other delegation members and state officials to try to get more assistance. Massachusetts farmers in several western counties who sustained flood damage are eligible for special emergency assistance, including low interest loans, from the US Agriculture Department. That program does not appear to be running out of money but its administration could be affected by a lengthy shutdown.
“I went out there and I saw how devastated these farmers are, so we’re going to do everything that we can,” Markey said.
Governor Maura Healey signed a supplemental budget last month that provides $20 million in aid for farms affected by severe weather. And her administration hopes the federal government avoids a shutdown so that emergency federal funds will continue to be available, said Healey spokesperson Karissa Hand.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said this week that he supports additional money for disasters and for Ukraine, although the bill faces trouble in the House. Florida’s two senators, Republicans Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, have called for the disaster aid to be separated from the more controversial Ukraine assistance.
Despite opposition to more Ukraine aid by many House Republicans, Warren said she believes there will be more bipartisan support in the Senate if it remains tied to the disaster money. And Warren said the additional funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC, is desperately needed, as is money to continue a pandemic child care assistance program that will end Sept. 30 unless it’s extended.
“When we’re talking about crises, it’s floods and fires, but it’s also families with no child care that has powerful economic effects across the country,” she said.
Warren is pushing for more money for the child care assistance, which Biden did not include in his $44 billion emergency request. But the White House did include money for WIC, whose costs have skyrocketed as more people needed it during the pandemic and inflation pushed up the prices of the food it provides. The program provides access to nutritious foods, like milk, fruits, and vegetables, to low-income pregnant and postpartum mothers and their children up to 5 years old.
“With the increase in participation and the increase in food costs, it really necessitates the federal government to provide us with an increased investment,” said Loreto O Connor, director of Harbor Health Services’ WIC program that serves South Boston and part of Dorchester.
The program’s enrollment increased to 4,100 this summer from 3,600 just before the pandemic hit, she said. Nationwide, participation in WIC has grown to about 6.7 million in May from 6.1 million in February 2020, according to the Agriculture Department, which administers the program. The food costs have grown to about $376 million from $253 million during that same period.
Cuts to the program would be “devastating” for the families involved, O Connor said.
Representative Jim McGovern, a Worcester Democrat who has spent his career working to end hunger, said the nutrition assistance is crucial and criticized Republicans for putting it in jeopardy
“I don’t know what the hell is wrong with these people that we can’t all come together so pregnant mothers can have healthy babies and babies can start off their life with healthy nutrition,” he said.
Senators have begun working on approving the 12 annual government spending bills, each of has passed out of committees with bipartisan support. The House, which does not return from its break until next week, has only passed one spending bill. And that legislation, to fund the Defense Department, contained controversial provisions on abortion policy and transgender soldiers that led most Democrats and even four Republicans to oppose it.
With time running out, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, talked about passing a temporary spending bill to keep the government open after Sept. 30. But with some House Republicans openly opposing such a move, McCarthy is again left to negotiate internally with the his conference’s hardliners.
Members of the House Freedom Caucus announced last month that they would oppose any short-term government funding bill “that continues Democrats’ bloated COVID-era spending and simultaneously fails to force the Biden administration to follow the law and fulfill its most basic responsibilities.” They issued several demands for such a bill, including adding border security measures, that Biden and the Democrats oppose.
It all opens the door to a shutdown, which Schumer said Wednesday is not necessary.
“We hope the House comes to its senses and follows our example and passes bipartisan legislation and then we will be able to avoid a government shutdown,” he told reporters.