Keeping the government open and funded is the bare minimum to expect from Congress after the Houston disaster. But Capitol Hill is also widely expected to take up an emergency "supplemental" funding bill that would send tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars to help begin to repair the Texas coast using the Federal Relief Act, which allows the federal government to steer emergency cash to state governments hit by natural disasters.
The price tag could be huge. After Hurricane Katrina, Congress passed several aid packages that together exceeded $110 billion. In 2013, after Hurricane Sandy struck the Eastern Seaboard near New York City, Congress approved upward of $50 billion. (For some perspective: The US government spends about $60 billion on housing every year for the entire country.)
"Every hurricane is different, but this one has similarities to Katrina," Hoagland said. "Certainly the death rate now is much less, but the impact on total federal spending may wind up being very similar."
The amount of federal money will largely be determined by FEMA and state teams that will go into the field, survey the damage, and write reports about what needs to be fixed and how much it may cost to fix it. Once those damage estimates are compiled, the executive branch will send Congress a spending bill to transfer federal money back to the states.
About 90 percent of this multi-billion-dollar aid package will likely go to restoring public infrastructure, according Larson, of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. If history is a guide, just 10 percent will likely go to helping private homeowners.
FEMA is far from the only federal agency that will require funding in the wake of the disaster. Among those that will likely seek billions of dollars in emergency temporary funding is the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Education, as well as the US military. Schools will have to be repaired; bridges and roads will have to be rebuilt; electrical grids must be restored.
But in the past, getting emergency funding has meant overcoming political hurdles. Congressional Republicans — including nearly all of the Texas delegation — spent the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy insisting that any new funding for hurricane relief had to be offset with cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. The New York Daily News memorably accused then-Speaker John Boehner of stabbing the Statue of Liberty in the back, and Congress held up the package even while facing criticism from a Republican governor, Chris Christie (R-NJ).
This time, the story will likely end differently. In 2013, 23 of 24 House Republicans from Texas voted against the aid package for Sandy; some members of Texas's Republican delegation, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), are signaling they're unlikely to have similar reservations this time around. (Cruz complained about "unrelated spending" in the Hurricane Sandy bill, though the Huffington Post's Matt Fuller has a convincing debunking of that explanation.)
Still, other potential fissures could complicate Congress's plan to swiftly pass a big aid package for Texas. One challenges facing lawmakers is that some members will have legitimate grievances about not receiving enough funding to respond to disasters in their areas. They'll use the crisis as an opportunity to fix that problem — which can then open the door for more and more requests than are manageable.
"'Oh, there was a hurricane in Houston? Well, we had a tornado in Kansas a few years ago,'" Hoagland said, imagining what a lawmaker might say. "Then more and more things get tacked on like that, and congressional districts will say, 'I want to take care of Houston, but I also want the funding that we were promised.' That's where things can really begin to break down."