In Harvey's Wake

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Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and Congressional leaders came to an agreement on Wednesday to tie Hurricane Harvey relief to a host of pressing fiscal issues the federal government must address in the coming weeks.

The deal, announced by House and Senate Democratic leaders, was a setback for some fiscal conservatives, who had been hoping to avoid pressuring GOP members of Congress from backing ideologically unpopular measures like raising the debt ceiling or continuing to fund the government past Sept. 30 without significant spending cuts.

"In the meeting, the President and Congressional leadership agreed to pass aid for Harvey, an extension of the debt limit, and a continuing resolution both to December 15, all together," said U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York and U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California in a joint statement.

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"Both sides have every intention of avoiding default in December and look forward to working together on the many issues before us."

Trump's deal essentially handed leverage to Congressional Democrats and left many Republicans shocked, dumbfounded and even enraged Wednesday.

But U.S. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn suggested it gave his conference breathing room for other issues.

"This basically kicks the can down the road for three months, but it does give us time to try to make the case for tax reform and to do other important things," he told reporters. "From my standpoint the most urgent thing we need to do is get resources to Texas. This begins that process."

The deal includes short-term funding to address needs related to Hurricane Harvey. Congress is set to address a larger Harvey funding bill in the coming weeks.

Earlier in the day, the U.S. House had voted to fund almost $8 billion for short-term Hurricane Harvey relief, with full support from the Texas delegation.

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Most of the money — about $7.4 billion — will provide short-term support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's efforts to aid those affected by the storm. Another $450 million will go to the Small Business Administration, which could end up providing loans to homeowners whose houses were flooded but do not have flood insurance. The House approved the measure in a 419-3 vote, with all 36 Texas House members joining in support of the legislation. The bill now heads to the U.S. Senate.

About a dozen Texas Republican U.S. House members held a news conference right after the vote, with those representing the most damaged areas testifying to the severity of the situation and the need for help.

U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, sported a "Houston Strong" T-shirt over his dress shirt and tie to show his support.

"Although this storm hurt our state, I have never been prouder to call myself a Texan," said U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, whose district includes parts of the Houston suburb of Katy. "It is my hope now that the Senate will act quickly and swiftly to provide immediate relief and assistance to those who have been hurt the most during this devastating storm so we can start rebuilding Texas as soon as possible."

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, said lawmakers took an an important step in recovery efforts.

"Countless lives in Houston and Harris County have been put on hold – families who cannot return to their flooded homes, children whose schools were damaged, mothers and fathers who cannot go back to work," Green said. "Hurricane Harvey was heartbreaking and traumatizing, but I am confident we will be stronger than before because we’ve already seen first-hand that we’re in this together.”

Asked Wednesday afternoon about where the Senate is headed in terms of voting on Harvey-related relief, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said, "I think we will see a very substantial relief package. And I expect to see strong bipartisan support for it."

Even as Congress sorts out how to deal with Harvey, another major hurricane, Irma, is creating concerns about the Florida coastline.

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"We have a category five hurricane approaching the coast of Florida, it is an intense hurricane," McCaul said when asked if that storm could divert attention and funds away from Texas. "That is why this vote was so important today to replenish the disaster relief fund."

"Every state hit deserves to recognized and to be taken care of," he later added. "We do want the focus to stay on the devastating impact Harvey had on the state of Texas, and I think my delegation, our delegation, large in number, will continue that effort.

"But at the end of the day, we are all Americans and wherever a hurricane hits in the United States of America, Americans are going to respond to that."

Claire Allbright contributed to this report.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The Texas delegation in the U.S. House will hold a rare, bipartisan meeting to discuss Congress' role in Hurricane Harvey's aftermath. The National Flood Insurance Program is among several issues taking on new urgency since the storm. [Full story]

  • Animals seeking shelter from floods might be found hiding in debris as Houston residents return for post-hurricane cleanup, state officials warned Tuesday. [Full story]

  • Oil refineries and chemical plants across the Texas Gulf Coast released more than 1 million pounds of dangerous air pollutants in the week after Harvey struck, according to filings. [Full story]

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