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Houses take on water off O'Neal Lane looking northeast from I-12 in the Baton Rouge area during severe flooding in East Baton Rouge Parish on Sunday August 14, 2016.

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG

WASHINGTON — The National Flood Insurance Program would get a three-month extension under a broad legislative deal struck this week, providing a brief reprieve for policyholders in the federally run program set to expire this month. 

The temporary extension for flood insurance was tied Wednesday night in the U.S. Senate to a bundle of legislation, including an influx of $7.9 billion of disaster money for FEMA and a three-month agreement to fund the federal government and lift the debt ceiling.

On Thursday, lawmakers passed the package overwhelmingly, 80-17, with both U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, Republicans from Louisiana, casting "yes" votes. It now heads back to the House, which had quickly approved an initial Hurricane Harvey aid bill on Wednesday and is expected to act on the larger deal before the end of the week.

The huge bundle of legislation comes as Hurricane Irma, an alarmingly powerful Category 5 storm, barrels across the Caribbean and menaces Florida. FEMA officials have warned the disaster-response agency was stretched short of money as it responded to Hurricane Harvey's devastation and prepared for another potential catastrophe.

The Senate bill also tacked $7.4 billion in federal disaster relief money for HUD's Community Development Block Grant program on top of the $7.4 billion infusion into FEMA's disaster relief fund and the $450 million for Small Business Administration's disaster loans approved the day before by the House of Representatives. The block grant program money can be used to help pay for rebuilding costs and is specifically dedicated to 2017 disasters. 

President Donald Trump struck the deal to combine the lingering fiscal issues, along with flood insurance and disaster relief, with top Capitol Hill Democrats over the objections of some in his own party.

The NFIP, which provides nearly all flood insurance coverage for homeowners and businesses in the United States, is currently slated to expire on Sept. 30.

Cassidy said the short-term extension of NFIP was needed to buy time to negotiate a comprehensive deal on the future of the program. Lawmakers have been deeply split on how to rework the program, which is mired in debt from massive payouts following Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

"With the Gulf Coast still recovering from Harvey, Irma hitting Florida, and another hurricane in the Atlantic, Congress and the president did the right thing," Cassidy said.

“This short-term NFIP extension prevents a lapse in coverage during hurricane season. This coverage is essential for Louisiana,” Kennedy said. “Policyholders need to be able to afford their flood insurance, and they deserve the long-term certainty that I will continue working to provide.”

Most had hoped to reach an agreement on a long-term reauthorization, but the looming deadline and a lengthy list of other items for Congress to tackle posed serious challenges.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, criticized the brief extension, saying it didn't provide enough certainty for homeowners who are building after their properties were hit by Hurricane Harvey or the 2016 Louisiana floods. Graves has pushed for a longer, if still temporary, extension of the program.

Caitlin Berni, vice president of policy and communications for Greater New Orleans Inc., a regional economic development group that has focused extensively on flood insurance issues, said she’d hoped Congress would pass a full reauthorization with a raft of reforms before the deadline.

But given the time crunch in Washington, Berni said, “this is the next-best solution.”

The package deal — which combined flood insurance with disaster money following Hurricane Harvey, an extension of the federal government’s borrowing authority and a temporary government-wide operating budget — clears many of the most pressing issues from Congress’ crowded September schedule.

That may create time for lawmakers, lobbyists and stakeholders to hammer out an agreement on the flood insurance program more comprehensively. But the new deadline in December comes as other parts of the package will also expire, potentially creating a new crunch for Congress just before the Christmas break.

Though Louisiana's delegation has been largely united on pushing for affordable, continuous flood insurance coverage for homeowners, a number of other lawmakers have called for substantial changes to the program that would make the cost of insurance more expensive for some homeowners.

Budget hawks have pointed to the program's debt as a sign it is fiscally unsustainable, while some environmental groups have argued the program encourages development in floodplains.

Ongoing negotiations about changes to NFIP ran into a number of obstacles. A package of bills to reauthorize the program backed by the chair of the committee that oversees the program, U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, is strongly opposed by lawmakers from flood-prone areas, including Louisiana, because of concerns that its provisions could jack up rates for many homeowners and kick others out of the program.

Hensarling's package would restrict grandfathering provisions that have allowed homeowners to continue paying lower rates when flood maps change — without those in place, policyholders would see premium increases. 

The program’s debt itself is also controversial. NFIP had been in the black until federal levee failures in and around New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina prompted a huge wave of claims and saddled the program with $17 billion in debts to the Treasury.

The debt numbers have swelled following other costly catastrophes and look likely to balloon further as homeowners in southwest Louisiana and east Texas begin reporting Harvey damage.

A number of Louisiana lawmakers and others from flood-prone areas have advocated canceling interest or forgiving the debt. Interest payments to the federal Treasury topped $400 million last year.

Though Hensarling hasn’t shifted his position as Hurricane Harvey battered his state, Berni said she’s seen consensus building around some of the proposals pushed by Louisiana lawmakers in the wake of floods across the country.

“I think there’s a much wider recognition of the importance of flood insurance,” Berni said.

Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.