HOUSTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Sunday challenged Congress to raise the government’s debt limit in order to free up relief spending for Hurricane Harvey, a disaster that the governor of Texas said had caused up to $180 billion in damage.
Harvey, which came ashore on Aug. 25 as the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years, has killed an estimated 50 people, displaced more than 1 million and damaged some 200,000 homes in a path of destruction stretching for more than 300 miles (480 km).
As the city of Houston and the region’s critical energy infrastructure began to recover nine days after the storm hit, the debate over how to pay for the disaster played out in Washington.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott estimated damage at $150 billion to $180 billion, calling it more costly than Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy, which devastated New Orleans in 2005 and New York in 2012.
The administration of President Donald Trump has asked Congress for an initial $7.85 billion for recovery efforts, a fraction of what will eventually be needed.
Even that amount could be delayed unless Congress quickly increases the government’s debt ceiling, Mnuchin said, as the United States is on track to hit its mandated borrowing limit by the end of the month unless Congress increases it.
“Without raising the debt limit, I am not comfortable that we will get money to Texas this month to rebuild,” Mnuchin told Fox News.
Republican lawmakers, who control both houses of Congress, have traditionally resisted raising the debt ceiling, but linking the issue to Harvey aid could force their hand with people suffering and large areas of the fourth-largest U.S. city under water.
Beyond the immediate funding, any massive aid package faces budget pressures at a time when Trump is advocating for tax reform or tax cuts, leading some on Capitol Hill to suggest aid may be released in a series of appropriations.
Katrina set the record by costing U.S. taxpayers more than $110 billion. In advocating for funds to help rebuild his state, Abbott said damage from Harvey would exceed that.
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Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city expected most public services and businesses to be restored by Tuesday, the first day after Monday’s Labor Day holiday.