ROBERT COSTA: The long road to recovery. Flood-stricken Texans look to Washington for relief. I’m Robert Costa. We explain the hurdles Congress faces trying to get aid to Harvey victims. Plus, the president considers ending the dream for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants, tonight on Washington Week.
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From video.) It’s a terrible thing, but the city’s coming together.
MR. COSTA: As the floodwaters recede in and around Houston, emergency search-and-rescue efforts continue and new dangers emerge. Tens of thousands of people remain displaced in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. And for those able to return home, the grim and heartbreaking task of cleanup.
President Trump, who plans to donate 1 million (dollars) of his own money, is reassuring the Lone Star State that Congress will act quickly to provide federal relief.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I think that you’re going to see very rapid action from Congress, certainly from the president, and you’re going to get your funding. We think you’re going to have what you need and it’s going to go fast.
MR. COSTA: But given the scale of the disaster and the fact that up to 80 percent of victims do not have flood insurance, a political battle is brewing over emergency disaster funds as Congress faces contentious deadlines to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government.
Plus, will the president end the DREAMer program that protects hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants?
We wade through it all with Abby Livingston of The Texas Tribune, Geoff Bennett of NPR, Philip Rucker of The Washington Post, and Jeanne Cummings of The Wall Street Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Rescue and recovery efforts continue in Texas this evening, where much of greater Houston remains underwater. On Friday, the White House requested nearly $6 billion as an emergency down payment toward Harvey recovery aid. The Trump proposal is just a fraction of the estimated 200 billion (dollars) it will likely take to rebuild the region.
Here are some of the stats in the wake of Harvey. More than 100,000 homes were affected, and more than 32,000 people were displaced, and an unknown number of people remain stranded. There were 38 confirmed deaths. And as of Friday, more than 300,000 people have registered for federal aid. Texas Governor Greg Abbott is asking the federal government to pony up more, more than 125 billion (dollars), to help with the recovery efforts – and that’s before the full economic impact of the disaster is known.
Geoff, we’re one week later sitting here at this table, and we thought we were going to be in a September full of budget showdowns, a debt ceiling fight. But I wonder, and everyone’s wondering, has Harvey changed everything in Washington?
GEOFF BENNETT: I don’t think it’s changed everything. I think the hurricane relief effort will definitely focus the minds of lawmakers, who return on Tuesday. They want to give the appearance, you know, of being part of a functional body given the stakes that you just outlined, and we do expect that they probably will quickly approve that initial $6 billion relief package the Trump administration is sending over. But I think, you know, this moment of common cause, common focus has a pretty short shelf life because it does nothing to change the ideologies of members. It does nothing, especially for Democrats who take serious issue with the way the president handled the North Korean crisis this past month, his handling of the racial violence in Charlottesville. Those are serious issues that I think, you know, will come to the fore again after this initial moment.
JEANNE CUMMINGS: Well, in addition to that you have Senate Republicans, who have been taking a beating for the whole August recess from their own president. He attacked – at one point we counted up and he’d attacked seven senators. Only one was a Democrat. All of the rest were Republicans. And there’s a lot of scratchy feelings between them and the president. So I agree with Geoff, I – you know, they’ll definitely pass with big bipartisan votes the money for the – to clean up after the storm. And if they get the debt ceiling attached to it, then they could get that out of the way without needing the Republican conservatives in the House. But we move on from there and I think pretty soon they’ll all be back to form.
MR. COSTA: Back to form, really? You think so?
ABBY LIVINGSTON: Well, to play a little contrarian, you have to remember that some of the biggest troublemakers in the U.S. House are Texas Republicans – (laughter) – and their districts are literally underwater right now. And so you now hear them saying let’s not play any political games with this funding, and so I think what we may see that will be a different dynamic is the largest regional voting bloc in the Republican caucus might suddenly be willing to deal a lot more than they used to be.
MR. COSTA: Phil, we’ve seen the Freedom Caucus and the Trump White House today, on Friday, walk back their demand to have the border wall that the president so wants as part of this budget package in September. That seems to be a little bit of a change.
PHILIP RUCKER: It is a change, but they’re not walking back the demand for the border wall. They’re just postponing it. What we think is going to probably happen over the next few weeks is a short-term funding bill gets passed in the Congress, potentially with bipartisan support. But that’s only going to table the debate over the border wall until the end of this year. The president wants that wall. He wants $1.6 billion in funding to start building it. It’s a major campaign promise for him, and I think a lot of Republicans in the House want to help him get that. But the leadership – the Republican leadership in the House and the Senate, they’re not so keen on this wall, and it’s going to be a showdown that we might see in September – or December, rather.
MR. COSTA: So, Geoff, Phil’s saying that there’s going to be kumbaya now but this whole budget fight and even the debt ceiling could come back later in the year?
MR. BENNETT: Absolutely. I will say to the president’s credit he has gotten high marks for the way he’s handled the initial storm relief, and I think there will be a – you know, a decent well of goodwill for him in these initial weeks. But I think Phil is spot on. I think this is – (laughs) – this is just kicking the can down the road.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, the other – the other oddity here is that all of a sudden we have two other really, really divisive issues thrown into the September mix, and that is the DACA –
MR. COSTA: We’ll get to that later in the show.
MS. CUMMINGS: Right, but the idea that you’re going to have these fiscal fights and – including billions to go to Texas, and then let’s just toss in health care and immigration because both of them could rear their heads. And in that case, could there be more divisive issues?
MR. COSTA: You think health care comes back, even though it failed this summer?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, there – in the Senate there are – there are bipartisan efforts and there is a bill to try to stabilize the insurance market, and they really do need to do something by September 27th because that’s when the insurers have to report what they’re going to offer under Obamacare next year. So there is yet one more deadline, one more shark in the water shall we say, that’s out there that could blow the place up.
MR. COSTA: But the biggest thing, Abby, is this disaster relief package. You think about the 6 billion (dollars) that Texas is looking for in this initial request, but Governor Greg Abbott is saying it could cost between 100 (billion dollars) and $200 billion to solve what happened in Houston and to fix the region. Can we expect Senator Cruz, Ted Cruz, who fought against Sandy funding in 2012 when that hit the Northeast, who asked for all these offsets in spending, is he going to be a champion to make sure more than the 6 billion (dollars) actually ends up going to Texas?
MS. LIVINGSTON: I haven’t spoken directly to his office on this question, but I’ve talked to other folks on the Hill who are watching him closely, and they expect him to lobby for funding. I think one thing first and foremost that must be remembered, Houston is his hometown. Additionally, Republicans will be crafting this bill. There will not be a lot of Democratic input. There’s not a Democratic president to deal with. And so this argument that we can’t vote for it because of all this pork, Republicans have the power to, quote/unquote, “add this pork or not.” And lastly, he’s up for reelection, so the bets are he is a safe – he will win reelection, but he has a restive challenge in Congressman Beto O’Rourke on the Democratic side.
MR. BENNETT: And it shows, really, why so many lawmakers have taken great pains over the years to not politicize issues of relief aid, because they never know when they’re going to find themselves on the receiving end of needing billions upon billions of dollars.
MR. COSTA: And, Phil, this budget fight is complicated. Right before Harvey happened, there was perhaps almost a billion dollars in cuts scheduled for FEMA, the federal emergency unit, and now it’s all about giving more money to the federal government in some of these efforts.
MR. RUCKER: That’s right. The budget proposal that the Trump administration laid out earlier this year had a number of cuts across the board in all these agencies, but specifically in some of the disaster relief programs. And I jotted down some notes here that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, $200 million in cuts; FEMA, $667 million in cuts; HUD, $3 billion in Community Development Block Grants. These are all programs that theoretically could be helping people in Houston and in Louisiana rebuild right now that the Trump administration had targeted before the hurricane. We’ll see if they make any changes.
MR. COSTA: Do you think they’re going to walk it back?
MR. RUCKER: They may make some changes. There are discussions going on between the White House and Congress about what this budget package would look like. It also may be that this budget doesn’t get fully considered until December if they do some sort of short-term spending bill in September. So we’ll see what they do.
MR. COSTA: And, Jeanne, you brought up a point when we were talking earlier in the day about how it really matters whether this aid package is connected as part of must-pass legislation, whether it’s on the budget, which expires on September 30th, or it’s on the debt ceiling, raising the debt ceiling. Can you explain that, how the aid has to be attached to certain legislation to have a chance at bipartisan support?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, there are – there is a core group of House Republicans, conservatives, who do want to either see offsets or they feel like this is money just where the government’s just printing money, and that that’s no way to do it. And they have already made clear that they’re going to be skeptical and tight-fisted to some degree about the aid money. And so if Paul Ryan – it’s really all in the House. And if Paul Ryan can craft together a couple – partner two pieces of legislation and bring every single Democrat over, he can lose 50, he can lose 60 of his own caucus and still get the measure passed. And there’s one other way that Ted Cruz and others may be able to make this package more palatable, and that is after Sandy in New Jersey Governor Christie imposed a lot of new rebuilding regulations, and mostly it was elevating. They had to elevate their homes so that if another flood came through or storm came through they wouldn’t be back at the federal government begging for dollars. So it could be that they could impose these kinds of requirements in order to get the money. And what they did in New Jersey, they did not attach those two things, but what they did was say they attached it to flood insurance costs. And so if you followed their new rules and improved a little bit, a couple of feet, lifted it a little bit higher, then your flood insurance would be like $7,000; you didn’t do it, $31,000.
MR. COSTA: Abby, Jeanne brought up this point that’s so important, that as this aid is debated and discussed on Capitol Hill a lot of it’s going to really be about should federal funds go to pay for everything that happened in Houston. And you think about Houston – you’ve covered it so well – it has – very few people have flood insurance there. There are very few zoning laws. And we saw President Trump rolling back a lot of regulations earlier in August when it comes to who should get FEMA funds in these kind of situations.
MS. LIVINGSTON: It’s just a staggering crisis, and so I think you’re going to see a lot of people set aside their preconceived ideologies to get this city functional again, and the projection is years. Katrina only has been wrapping up in recent months with the disaster there. But I do think that there is a conversation happening about Houston and changes that need to be made. The main issue that created this flood was overdevelopment during – over flood lands where the plants were paved over that absorb all the water. So this is as much a man-made disaster as a natural one, and I think there’s some serious conversations going on.
MR. COSTA: And, Geoff, we haven’t heard climate change be discussed in a significant way, if at all, by the Trump administration when it comes to these kind of disasters.
MR. BENNETT: No, and I don’t think that we probably will. To the point Abby made, there’s some reporting out tonight that the Trump administration might take a second look at some of the – some of the rules and regulations, the Obama-era rules and regulations as it relates to some of the ecological things that they are trying to do. But I can’t imagine that this would be the thing that forces the Trump administration to change their whole worldview as it relates to climate change, as drastic as it was.
MR. RUCKER: But the big picture of what had happened before the storm is that President Trump and his administration did everything they could to try to undo the Obama legacy on climate change. Remember, Trump in the campaign called climate change a hoax. He staffed his administration and his Cabinet with people who don’t believe in the science behind climate change, and one by one they’re looking at these federal regulations to try to undo them, to peel them back, to make it easier conceivably for construction to happen, for building to happen for jobs. But it has these impacts when you have a natural disaster like we saw in Harvey.
MR. COSTA: Was this a turning point, Jeanne, for President Trump? Are we seeing the president become less ideological or more focused on bipartisanship, or is this just more a fleeting moment?
MS. CUMMINGS: I don’t think we know. I mean, he’s had so many turning points that, like, all of our heads are spinning, right? So the one thing that is consistent is that he doesn’t stay consistent. And so this is a good week for him, but that doesn’t mean that next week will be, because he’s had, you know, good days and good weeks before and then all of a sudden you have something happen like Charlottesville and everything just blows up again. So, I mean, I just think this is a president that’s so unpredictable that I don’t think you could point to any particular moment and pin it down.
MR. BENNETT: I would add one thing, though. I think the Trump administration’s calculus was pretty transparent in getting him there early, so that they wanted to avoid the direct comparison to the way George W. Bush handled Katrina, right? The other thing I think the president had going for him was that the people who he put in charge of addressing the relief effort actually, unlike the George W. Bush administration, actually had deep experience in emergency management. You have, you know, Brock Long at FEMA. You have Tom Bossert. You have even General Kelly as his chief of staff, who was the former DHS – head of DHS. And so in that way I think he gets deserved high marks for that response.
MR. COSTA: That’s a great place to turn because the president faces a choice about who he has represent him, whether it’s at FEMA with Brock Long; he has choices on policy about how this presidency is defined. And beyond Hurricane Harvey and the tragedy in Houston, immigration policy is also on the minds of many in Texas, where there is a large immigrant population. President Trump has said he will announce his decision about the future of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, next Tuesday. President Obama, you remember, established DACA to protect undocumented young people who were brought to this country as children. Here’s what Mr. Trump said about DACA back in February.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) We’re going to show great heart. DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me. But you have some absolutely incredible kids, I would say mostly. They were brought here in such a way – it’s a very – it’s a very, very tough subject. We are going to deal with DACA with heart.
MR. COSTA: House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republicans are urging the president not to rescind DACA. It really brings up the question, Abby, of no issue is debated in isolation. And President Trump is looking at DACA as people in Houston are looking for new construction, you have 120,000 people in Texas who are covered under the DACA program. Do you see Houston in any way as changing the president’s tune when it comes to this signature issue of immigration?
MS. LIVINGSTON: I don’t know about the president’s tune, but I think within the state right now, whether you’re talking about the border wall or any other really divisive issue, or DACA, there’s just no bandwidth for it. I mean, there really is a situation where people are still – Houston’s the population center of the state, and even though it’s a massive state everyone knows someone there who is being affected by this. And so it’s really just a furious rush to deal with the problem at hand, and everything else is a distraction.
MR. COSTA: Phil, the president just seems torn when it comes to DACA. Why is that?
MR. RUCKER: He does. You know, he’s a hardliner when it comes to immigration broadly. We all know the chants from the campaign rallies about the border wall. But this DACA program is the one piece where he’s not so easily pinned down, and he’s hearing a lot from different sides. As we just heard him say, he’s thinking about the issue with heart. He’s hearing from his daughter, but also from a lot of business CEOs, from others in his administration saying don’t terminate this program, this is important, these are Americans, these are people who are growing up here and have come here through no fault of their own. And at the same time, he’s trying to satisfy this restive base that wants a solution to the immigration issue, to the illegal immigration issue. They want an answer.
MS. CUMMINGS: And he does – he does have a middle path that he could – that he could try to take, and it’s possible what he could do is to not terminate the program but to announce that he’s phasing it out. And what that would do, these visas last for two years and then they have to be renewed, and so they would stop issuing renewals. And this would benefit him in two ways. First of all, he could go back to his base and say I did it, it’s ending, DACA as we know it. And then it would also create this steady drip-drip bit of pressure on Congress to step in and pass a DREAMers law, and they’ve had them on the books. But in the first – if he – if he goes this route, in the first quarter 55,000 of the kids, the DACA kids, would lose their visas. The next quarter it’s almost 80,000. And so you could see how that pressure would build on Congress.
MR. RUCKER: And they’re real lives.
MS. CUMMINGS: Yes.
MR. BENNETT: Yeah, and that’s right. I spent most of the week talking to DREAMers, the term used for DACA participants, and I have to tell you the words that they hear from the president ring hollow. Today he said we love DREAMers, we think DREAMers are terrific. The thing is, they do not believe that the president who has been reflexively against pretty much every Obama policy would in some way defend this one. And what they feel like – and I talked to one guy who crossed with his mom illegally from Mexico to Arizona when he was 10; he’s now 29. And I said you’ve been here for 19 years, why haven’t you applied for citizenship? And his response was that he didn’t see a line to get in. There was no route for him. He said he couldn’t get family-sponsored immigration because his entire family was here illegally. He didn’t qualify for the program for high-skilled workers. So DACA is all he has. And he feels like, you know, if the president does take steps to phase it out, he’ll lose his driver’s license, he’ll lose his work authorization. And he feels like he has a huge target on his back because in order to get DACA protection he had to hand over all of his information to the government to pass a background check.
MR. COSTA: So can we – that’s so true, Geoff. I mean, this affects hundreds of thousands of people’s lives who are here in the United States. But, Abby, I wonder about Jeanne’s point. If the burden then shifts to Congress to pass legislation, could we expect House Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell in the Senate to cobble together something that conservatives could like, but in effect keeps DACA going?
MS. LIVINGSTON: I mean, I could imagine that happening, and it’s just really hard to see how they can spend a lot of time on that issue when they’ve got 50 other things blowing up at the same time. So my guess is they’re just looking for the quickest solution that they can find.
MS. CUMMINGS: The last time the DREAMer bill came up in the Senate, it got 55 votes, so that’s how close they came. It needed 60 because of the filibuster rule. But I think if you add this kind of pressure to those senators where they’re hearing from those families all across the country, I think they might be able to get those last five votes. In the House, the question is what would the Democrats do. If the Democrats were to line up behind a bill, then Paul Ryan has a lot more room.
MR. RUCKER: And Trump’s advisors know how explosive this is politically, especially with the hurricane recovery going on in Texas. Our friend Hallie Jackson asked at the press briefing today about a man who is a DREAMer who’s covered in the DACA program who’s actually providing relief work to help those hurt in the hurricane, and the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, couldn’t really provide an answer for what would happen to that gentleman. And these are the stories we’re going to hear on the news and in the newspapers and on the radio over the next few weeks if they were to phase out the program.
MR. BENNETT: I think this week in particular shows how, you know, politics, this is not an academic pursuit. Harvey and DACA have real-life consequences and affect people in very real ways.
MR. COSTA: Abby, when you think about the president, do you think he’s getting influenced by General Kelly, his new chief of staff, as Phil said his son-in-law Jared Kushner, his daughter Ivanka? Is he actually maybe changing a bit?
MS. LIVINGSTON: He seems somewhat more predictable and a little bit like, I mean, going down. There is some – there is more organization to what we’re seeing. And he certainly hasn’t inflamed things this week like it has been in the past.
MR. COSTA: We have to leave it there because, before we go, I want to pause to send our thoughts and prayers to all the people in Texas who have been affected by Harvey.
We live in a country where partisan and bitter fights seem to be part of our lives, and that probably won’t change anytime soon. But we live in America, and America is more than politics – it’s people, good people, strangers even, who in times of need reach out with a hand from the edge of a boat or wrap their neighbors in blankets; police officers and the National Guard working alongside hundreds of volunteers. We saw America in Texas this week, and we thank those who work so hard and who continue to make the sacrifices necessary to help the victims and to begin the recovery.
If you would like to help the victims of Harvey, who will be in need for many months to come, make sure you check out our website for a list of charities where you can donate money or volunteer if you are in the area. You can find that at WashingtonWeek.org/HarveyRelief.
Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll tell you why President Trump may be on a collision course with his new chief of staff, General John Kelly. You can find that on our website later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.