After devastating wildfires scorched the Hawaiian town of Lahaina this month, state and federal officials have been calling on Congress to approve billions of dollars in disaster relief to help support the island. But some lawmakers are worried that the money may get tied up in the looming government shutdown fight, which could delay the funding for disaster victims.
“Shutting down the government is not an option,” Rep. Jill Tokuda, a Democrat who represents the Maui area in Congress, tells TIME. “This is about sending a message to every citizen in this country about how we take care of people in times of crisis and disaster. A government shutdown will slow down our recovery efforts.”
The push to approve supplemental funding for Hawaii intensified on Tuesday when FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell announced that the agency’s Disaster Relief Fund has a balance of just $3.4 billion, setting up the risk of it running out of money by September. She said that immediate needs funding would ensure that FEMA can continue to respond to disasters, but called on Congress to provide a long-term solution by passing $12 billion in additional funds for FEMA.
But funding for FEMA may get caught in the battle over budget talks, complicating the likelihood of final passage. For months, Congress has been at an impasse on budget talks as far-right members of the party have pressured GOP leaders to further slash funding levels for various government agencies and include conservative policy provisions to restrict abortion and LGBTQ rights in the appropriations package. With budget disagreements unresolved, time is running out before a government shutdown takes effect on Sept. 30. House lawmakers, returning on Sept. 12, will have just 12 work days to pass 11 annual appropriations bills. If they don’t, billions of dollars of federal relief money for Hawaii in the wake of the largest natural disaster in its history could sit unspent as long as the government is shut down.
To try to separate the relief funds from the potential shutdown, Tokuda says that Democrats are considering using a discharge petition to get money out the door to FEMA—a process that enables a majority of the House to sidestep the speaker and committee chairs to push forward legislation on its own. But discharge petitions are a slow process: bills must sit in committee for 30 legislative days and then the petition needs to sit on a House calendar for seven legislative days before a vote can happen. Still, “A discharge petition is definitely one of the ways that we can look to continue to move such aid forward and over to the Senate,” Tokuda says. “We have to consider every tool in our toolbox.”
That’s not the only option to untangle Hawaii disaster relief from the spending package. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last week announced that he would support passing a short-term bill to fund the government until December, giving lawmakers on both sides of the aisle more time to pass spending bills for the upcoming fiscal year. Some lawmakers are also eyeing the possibility of passing a stopgap funding bill, also known as a continuing resolution, to keep federal agencies including FEMA running. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy acknowledged the likelihood of a continuing resolution during a conference call with House Republicans Monday night, though some members of his party are opposed to the current proposal, which ties FEMA funding with funding for Ukraine. “I thought it was a good thing that [McCarthy] recognized that we need a CR in September. I’m supportive of that,” Schumer said on Aug. 14. “A CR until early December provides time for consideration of these bipartisan bills.”
The fires that devastated Lahaina, a town of 13,000 people on the island of Maui, spread rapidly in mid-August after powerful winds from a hurricane moved through dry grasslands. 115 people have been confirmed dead, with hundreds more missing. According to Criswell, FEMA has already distributed more than $8.5 million to Maui, including $3.6 million for direct rental assistance. FEMA has encouraged survivors to register with the government to receive assistance, including an immediate payment of $700 to cover food and water. More than 1,000 federal officials were on the ground in the days following the fires, and close to 2,000 victims had been moved into hotel rooms on the island. But with several hundred people in the area still unaccounted for, federal officials are also looking to continue funding search and rescue operations.
Tokuda says the additional $12 billion in disaster relief funds that Congress is considering giving FEMA may not be enough for rebuilding critical infrastructure like housing, schools, and health care facilities in Hawaii—especially as Hurricane Idalia heads towards Florida and other natural disasters are expected to take a slice of the funding. A potential government shutdown would slow down recovery efforts across the U.S., harming all communities impacted by hurricanes, tropical storms, and wildfires. “A disaster does not stop because the government shuts down,” Tokuda says. “The aid must not stop flowing into our community.”
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