House passes $7.9B aid package for Harvey victims

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed $7.9 billion in Hurricane Harvey disaster relief as warring Republicans and Democrats united behind help for victims of that storm as an ever more powerful new hurricane bore down on Florida.

The 419-3 vote sent the aid package -- likely the first of several -- to the Senate in hopes of sending the bill to President Donald Trump before dwindling federal disaster reserves run out at the end of this week.

"Help is on the way," said Texas GOP Rep. John Culberson, whose Houston district was slammed by the storm. "The scale of the tragedy is unimaginable. But in the midst of all this, and all the suffering, it really reflects the American character, how people from all over the country stepped up to help Houstonians recover from this."

The first installment in Harvey aid is to handle the immediate emergency needs and replenish Federal Emergency Management Agency reserves in advance of Hurricane Irma, which is barreling through the Caribbean toward Florida.

"This is a chance to be your brother's keeper," said Houston Democratic Rep. Al Green. "This is chance for the unity that we express when we're before the cameras to manifest itself in the votes that we cast here in Congress."

Far more money will be needed once more complete estimates are in this fall, and Harvey could end up exceeding the $110 billion government cost of Hurricane Katrina.

"My friends and neighbors' homes were completely flattened by Hurricane Harvey's winds. Businesses were destroyed," said Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas. "FEMA will be out of money in just two or three days if we don't pass this."

The funding is set to be attached to a short-term increase in the government's borrowing cap and a temporary government-wide funding bill under an agreement between Trump and top Capitol Hill Democrats.

That move also would free up about $7 billion in additional FEMA funds that will be brought forward from the 2018 budget.

Some Democrats from the New York delegation reminded Texas Republicans that they opposed a larger aid bill for those harmed by Superstorm Sandy in the Northeast five years ago.

"What you did to us during Superstorm Sandy should not stand, should not be done to any other people, anyplace in the country," said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. "We're one country, we're Americans. We need to help those who need help."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said again Wednesday that increased Harvey costs show the importance of acting swiftly to increase the government's debt cap to make sure there's enough borrowed cash to pay out the surge in disaster aid.

Analysts at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank, say Harvey aid wouldn't cause a cash crunch for weeks.

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