Storm aid could push debt, shutdown deadline to December

The emergency appropriations package for hurricane Harvey could let lawmakers punt budget and debt deals to the end of 2017, with the next shutdown threat coming in mid-December.

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President Trump appears to be backing a plan offered by Democratic leaders Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to fund $7.9 billion in Harvey relief, and extend the debt ceiling and pass a continuing resolution until Dec. 15.

In a joint statement released Sept 6, Schumer and Pelosi announced that "the President and congressional leadership agreed" to the plan, adding that "Both sides have every intention of avoiding default in December, and look forward together on the many issues before us."

Asked by a reporter after a Sept. 6 Oval Office meeting with Trump and congressional leaders from both parties if he supported tying a debt ceiling extension and storm aid in a single package, Trump replied, "We'll see."

The federal government is scheduled to hit the limit of its ability to borrow on Sept. 29, but emergency storm funding could accelerate that deadline, warned Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

"With Harvey, it's moved the situation up earlier. And without raising the debt limit, I'm not comfortable that we would get the money that we need this month to Texas to rebuild," Mnuchin said on “Fox News Sunday" on Sept. 3.

Congress is back in session with just 11 working days left to extend the debt ceiling and come up with an appropriations package before the current funding bill expires.

The House overwhelmingly passed a supplemental appropriation giving the Federal Emergency Management Agency $7.4 billion to respond to Harvey, and $450 million to the Small Business Administration for the disaster loans program. That measure does not include the debt ceiling extension or a continuing resolution.

At a Sept 6 press conference, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) blasted the plan, saying that it was "ridiculous that [Democrats] want to play politics with the debt ceiling at this moment."

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy noted that technology was driving a need for speed when it comes to hurricane response.

"Technology helped stayed a lot of lives," McCarthy said, citing examples of stranded flood victims connecting with rescuers via mobile apps. Advances in payment tech and supply chain are also driving a fast funding plan, he said. "We're seeing FEMA needs help sooner, because the resources can get out faster," McCarthy said.

The supplemental bill is urgent because FEMA is running out of spending authority.

"I believe that FEMA is going to literally run out of money at the end of this week," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said on Sept. 5.

If congressional Republicans bite the bullet and pass legislation supporting Harvey relief and a joint debt ceiling extension and continuing resolution, it sets up another "fiscal cliff" scenario just before the end of 2017.

Tech in funding bills

The White House has weighed in on the "minibus" package of civilian side appropriations bills under consideration in the House. In a Sept. 5 statement of overall support for the measure, the Trump administration urged further cuts to civilian side programs and an increase in the discretionary spending caps under the Budget Control Act to obviate a $72.4 billion sequestration of the defense budget.

However, the administration complained that the bill does not include $228 million requested by Trump for IT modernization – an amount that tracks closely with the Managing Government Technology Act request.

"The [fund] is an important step in changing the way the Federal Government manages its IT portfolio by establishing a central mechanism designed to improve management and oversight with resources dedicated to IT modernization, moving agencies to more secure and efficient IT systems, and infrastructure."

The administration also wants to see the House ramp up founding of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Polar Follow On program, from $50 million allowed in the House bill to the $180 million requested by the administration. "Insufficient funding for this program could increase both the cost of procurement in future years and the risk that critical weather forecasting data would be unavailable after the current generation of satellites reach the end of their operational lives," the White House warned in its Sept. 5 statement.

At the Office of Personnel Management, the White House is concerned that the $18 million in funding for IT modernization is not enough. The administration wants the requested $37 million, "to defend against increasingly advanced cyber threats."

At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the administration "is concerned" that the department won't be able to maintain and improve IT with the $150 million in funding provided by the House bill. The administration is seeking $250 million for HUD IT.