Congress returns to several pressing issues, with Harvey money, debt ceiling at forefront

Leaders of the GOP-controlled House purportedly plan to vote Wednesday on a $7.9 billion Hurricane Harvey relief package separate from deciding on whether to raise the federal debt ceiling, setting up a potential White House showdown and adding another twist to what will be an action-packed next several weeks on Capitol Hill.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told “Fox News Sunday” that he and President Trump wanted Congress to have a combined vote on the relief package and increasing the debt ceiling, amid concerns that they won’t have enough money to help clean up from the deadly storm that flooded much of southeast Texas, then parts of Louisiana.

However, two of the House’s most fiscally conservative groups -- the House Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Committee -- have already balked at the White House plan.

“What happened in Texas is a tragedy and it needs an urgent Congressional response,” North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker, leader of the Republican Study Committee, said Monday. “Congress is united behind this effort, but I worry about jeopardizing an agreement with such legislative games. … The debt ceiling should be paired with significant fiscal and structural reforms.”

Meanwhile, Congress’ top two Democrats have signaled some support for the idea.

"Providing aid in the wake of Harvey and raising the debt ceiling are both important issues, and Democrats want to work to do both," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, said in a joint statement Sunday. "Given the interplay between all the issues Congress must tackle in September, Democrats and Republicans must discuss all the issues together and come up with a bipartisan consensus."

In addition to having to raising the debt ceiling by Sept. 29 and appropriate billions to hurricane victims in dire need, Congress also must pass a separate spending resolution to avoid a government shutdown after Sept. 30.

The linking of the emergency money and the debt ceiling is just the latest in a recent series of such proposals -- including Trump vowing before the hurricane to “close down” the government if the spending resolution doesn’t include money for his campaign-promised U.S.-Mexico border wall.

The Associated Press reports the House will vote separately on the debt ceiling and the Harvey funding.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told Fox News on Monday the chamber will indeed vote Wednesday on the hurricane money. He also said he fully realizes Mnuchin’s concerns about having enough money but was not specific about whether the issues would be combined into one vote.

The GOP-controlled Senate has not said when or how it will vote on the issue.

Trump plans to meet with congressional leaders from both parties this week as lawmakers upon their return.

The government's cash reserves are running low because the debt limit has already been reached, and the Treasury Department is using various accounting measures to cover expenses.

Mnuchin originally had said that Congress would need to raise the $19.9 trillion borrowing limit by Sept. 29 to avoid a catastrophic default on the debt, allowing the government to continue borrowing money to pay bills like Social Security and interest.

But on Sunday, he said that deadline had moved up due to unexpected new spending on Harvey.

"Without raising the debt limit, I'm not comfortable that we would get the money that we need this month to Texas to rebuild," he said.

Trump's aid request would add $7.4 billion to dwindling Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster aid coffers and $450 million to finance disaster loans for small businesses. An additional $5 billion to $8 billion for Harvey could be tucked into a catch-all spending bill Congress must pass in the coming weeks to fund the government past Sept. 30.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday described the federal aid package as an important initial "down payment" on Harvey relief that he expects will come to $150 billion to $180 billion.

GOP lawmakers also head into the final quarter of the year trying pass Trump’s plan to overhaul the federal tax code.

Meanwhile, Trump may be poised to throw another tricky issue Congress' way.

The White House says the president on Tuesday will decide the fate of the younger immigrants brought to the United States as kids and protected from deportation by former President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. If Trump ends or phases out the program, there will be pressure for Congress to step in with a fix to save nearly 800,000 from the threat of deportation.

Some Republicans have even begun to talk about the possibility of a deal to protect this group in exchange for funding Trump's border wall, despite Democrats called the proposal a nonstarter.

Fox News' Mike Emanuel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.