Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) vowed Tuesday to attach legislation raising the debt limit to a Hurricane Harvey relief bill the House is expected to approve on Wednesday, setting up a confrontation among Republicans in Congress.
Cornyn said Congress has no choice but to raise the debt ceiling now given the need for help in his home state, the escalating costs and the government’s diminishing coffers.
“It's imperative that we get that supplemental passed,” Cornyn told reporters.
He said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had made the decision to tie the debt limit hike to the Harvey bill.
“And the leader has made the decision to attach the debt limit to that, and I support that," Cornyn said.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had earlier said the House bill providing relief to communities hit by Harvey would not include language raising the debt ceiling.
House conservatives have argued that the two measures should move separately, and members of the House Freedom Caucus also say an increase in the debt limit should be paired with measures to restrain spending.
“If the Republicans won’t fix [our debt problem] when we’re in charge, who will?” Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), a Freedom Caucus member, said Tuesday.
Yet pairing the debt ceiling hike with Harvey relief makes sense for GOP leaders on both sides of the Capitol.
It could make it easier to win votes for the debt ceiling vote in the House, since many Republicans want to offer support for the Harvey bill.
McConnell listed passing money for Hurricane Harvey recovery, raising the debt ceiling and funding the government as the three biggest priorities for Congress as lawmakers return from the August recess.
But McConnell didn't signal if the debt ceiling vote and Harvey aid would be linked. Asked about Cornyn's comments, a spokesman for McConnell noted they “have not made any announcements on procedure.”
Cornyn, in a separate interview with The Daily Beast, said that while he didn’t like moving a clean debt hike, there was little choice given the need in Texas.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has estimated total damage from Harvey at as much as $180 billion. The Trump administration has requested an initial $7.85 billion in aid, which it has described as a downpayment.
And there could be an even bigger need in the next week. Hurricane Irma is now bearing down on the Atlantic as a Category 5 storm, and if it hits Florida there will be the need for more aid.
“Unfortunately, I think that’s all we have time to do,” Cornyn told The Daily Beast of the decision to combine Harvey aid with the debt ceiling hike.
“I’m told that if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, then we can’t appropriate the additional funds for Harvey on an emergency basis which we absolutely need to do,” he said.
“I continue to be worried about the debt, but I don’t think this is a time to have that debate.”
Congress had faced an end-of-month deadline to raise the debt ceiling, but escalating costs associated with Harvey could theoretically more quickly lead to the expiration of the Treasury Department’s “extraordinary measures,” which have put off the need to raise the borrowing limit for the time being.
Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said his “understanding” was that the increase in the debt ceiling would be “clean.”
Asked about timing of the Senate's action, he said a vote would take place “soon,” adding that “we'll get it done this week.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on “Fox News Sunday” said the two issues should be tied together.
“The president and I believe that it should be tied to the Harvey funding, that our first priority is to make sure that the state gets money,” Mnuchin said of the debt ceiling.
Trump has not publicly commented on the issue.
Even before Cornyn’s remarks, Brat suggested it would be difficult to prevent the issues from being put into one package.
“There’s a kind of a curious logic,” he said, “that because things are so bad fiscally, we ought to just make it easy and do a clean debt-ceiling increase.”
Pairing Harvey relief with a debt-ceiling increase would put pressure on Republicans eager to help Texas, a red state that’s home to seven powerful House chairmen.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the Freedom Caucus, has stayed firm on his position that the debt ceiling should not be tied to a relief bill.
Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the 170-member conservative Republican Study Committee, also opposes the linking.
The Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group, has gone further, arguing that disaster relief should be offset with other spending cuts.
“All disaster relief should always be paid for. Always,” Club president David McIntosh said in a statement Tuesday, in which he also said the debt ceiling should be decoupled from Harvey aid.
Most of the funds in Wednesday’s bill would go toward replenishing the depleted FEMA Disaster Relief Fund. As of Tuesday, the fund was down to $1.013 billion, but only $541 million of that was earmarked for Harvey.
The rest was being set aside to prepare for Irma and for Fire Management Assistance Grants addressing wildfires in California.