WASHINGTON — The reeling and cash-strapped National Flood Insurance Program, battered by a wave of claims from a spate of 2017 hurricanes and the 2016 Louisiana floods, is poised to get a multi-billion dollar injection under a bill sent to President Donald Trump's desk on Tuesday evening.
The NFIP would see $16 billion of its debt to the U.S. Treasury wiped away under the bill, which also includes another $20 billion in emergency funding for the federal response to hurricanes Harvey, Maria, Irma and Nate, as well as wildfires in California that have burned more than a million acres and left dozens dead.
The debt forgiveness for the NFIP comes amid warnings from administrators at the federally run insurance program that it was within a week of running out of money with which to pay claims.
The NFIP has exhausted its cash reserves, burned through reinsurance payments and nearly hit its congressionally imposed borrowing limit. With its debt partially wiped out, the NFIP could borrow new money from the U.S. Treasury to pay claims.
The bills, which had already cleared the U.S. House of Representatives, passed the U.S. Senate 83 to 17 on Tuesday evening. Both Louisiana U.S. senators, Republicans John Kennedy and Bill Cassidy, voted in favor.
The White House has backed the bill and Trump is expected to sign it.
Though the relief package's passage was never in doubt, a number of conservative Republicans had grumbled about the lack of spending cuts elsewhere to offset its $36 billion overall price tag.
U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier, the lone Louisianan to vote against the package, cited the federal debt when asked about his opposition by The Advocate last week.
"It is wrong for Congress to add another $36 billion to our debt without any attempt to find an offset in the budget and without any opportunity for meaningful debate or amendments," Johnson said.
Several influential lawmakers from Florida and Texas, two states hard-hit by hurricanes over the last several months, had unsuccessfully pushed to tack additional recovery money to the bill.
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and the Senate majority whip, said before Tuesday's vote that White House officials had pledged to request another round of federal disaster assistance in the next month.
Cornyn had clashed with fellow Senate leaders over adding additional recovery money for his state to the bill. But the White House and the top Republicans on Capitol Hill insisted — as they have on other disaster packages over the last two months — on holding off on supplemental recovery money or other provisions until future bills.
Louisiana's congressional delegation has been lobbying leaders on Capitol Hill to include several provisions for victims of the state's devastating 2016 floods in a coming package.
In addition to potentially bringing home additional recovery money, Louisiana lawmakers are also lobbying to change or waive a federal disaster regulation that drastically limits access to recovery grants for those who had been approved for SBA loans.
Under current federal regulations, flood victims who were approved for Small Business Administration loans face major hurdles in receiving disaster recovery grants from the Restore Louisiana program — even if they ultimately decided against taking out a loan.
That's because administrative rules deem that a duplication of benefits and require the full amount of the SBA loan approval — whether or not it was actually taken out — be deducted before any additional grants are given.
Congressional sources say members of Louisiana's delegation have also discussed potentially tying retroactive tax-relief measures for flood victims — something already available for 2017 disaster victims but never approved for those hit by the 2016 Baton Rouge-area floods — to future tax-relief bills.
A spokesman for Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, said the senator has been working with his colleagues on the Finance Committee on tax relief "that would look back to the 2016 flood event in Louisiana" as well as money for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge ship channels and other waterways left clogged by hurricanes Harvey and Nate.
The state has received a total of $1.7 billion in special congressional appropriations to help rebuild after the 2016 floods, including roughly $1 billion for the Restore Louisiana program to assist flood-hit homeowners.
But Gov. John Bel Edwards, whose administration is running the program, and several other state leaders have said that money won't cover the full cost of recovery and have previously lobbied for additional funding.
The state has also pushed for federal funding for new flood-prevention measures and other infrastructure projects. Richard Carbo, the governor's deputy chief of staff, said Tuesday that additional money from Congress would also allow the state to award recovery grants to owners of homes that FEMA deemed to have sustained "minor damage" — something Carbo said can include homes hit by nearly three feet of water.
Kennedy, R-Madisonville, said President Trump discussed additional disaster relief while having lunch with Senate Republicans on Tuesday afternoon. But Kennedy bristled when asked about the chances of Louisiana getting additional recovery money in coming packages.
The $1.7 billion already given to the state, Kennedy said, "is not enough — but it's not chopped liver."
The senator went on to blast Edwards, the governor, for what Kennedy contends has been a far-too-slow delivery of the recovery money to homeowners and other victims.
Until the money already delivered to the state is spent, Kennedy said, there's little chance his congressional colleagues will sign off on more.
"My advice repeatedly to the governor," Kennedy said, "has been to tell his people to get up off their ass and get that money to our people."
The senator suggested that Edwards fire the staffers running the program. Kennedy declined to identify specific issues with the handling of disaster relief money or ways to speed up the program.
"He needs to get this money out the door," Kennedy said. "This has been well over a year now. There are no more excuses."
Carbo, with the governor's office, said Kennedy was badly misrepresenting the state's recovery efforts. While Carbo said the state is looking for ways to speed up the distribution of money, he said the process is moving faster than after previous disasters.
"Sen. Kennedy’s comments have to be taken with the understanding that he is obviously now campaigning for yet another office instead of actually doing the one he has," Carbo said, alluding to widespread rumors that Kennedy is mulling a run for governor in 2019.
Carbo also said addressing the SBA loan issue to allow Louisiana flood victims who applied for loans to receive money from the Restore Louisiana program would allow the state to deliver dramatically more money to homeowners.
Carbo noted that the governor has sent a number of letters to members of Congress asking for help in lifting that and other bureaucratic hurdles. Kennedy, Carbo said, hasn't responded or offered his help in resolving those issues since arriving in Washington at the beginning of the year.
"Instead of helping people, Sen. Kennedy spends his time in Washington D.C. coming up with crass one-liners better suited for a bad episode of 'Saturday Night Live,'" Carbo added.