White House wants $56 billion from Congress for disaster relief, child care and high-speed Internet

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House is asking lawmakers for nearly $56 billion in emergency spending to help the government respond to natural disasters, shore up funding for child care centers and keep high-speed internet running for low-income families — outlining President Joe Biden's domestic priorities as Congress simultaneously weighs sending billions for conflicts abroad.

The largest portion of the supplemental funding request, sent to Capitol Hill on Wednesday, includes more than $23 billion for disaster relief, as the Biden administration continues to aid communities across the U.S. devastated by wildfires, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes. The package also includes $16 billion to help scores of child care centers operate for another year, as well as $6 billion to extend free and discounted internet through December 2024, according to the White House.

Other asks included in the $56 billion request are international food aid, energy assistance for low-income households and pay for federal wildland fighters. Wednesday's package is on top of the separate, nearly $106 billion request the Biden administration made last week for aid to Ukraine and Israel, as well as other national security priorities.

The White House says the request for additional disaster relief – parsed out among the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies that cover housing, transportation and agriculture needs – is based on estimates from communities that have been hit by disasters this year, such as the August wildfires in Hawaii, hurricanes in Florida and flooding in California and Vermont, among other extreme weather events.

President Joe Biden has repeatedly traveled to disaster-ravaged zones this year to comfort victims and to pledge that the federal government would not only help with recovery efforts but in rebuilding communities.

"As I told your governor: If there is anything your state needs, I’m ready to mobilize that support — anything they need related to these storms,” Biden said as he visited Live Oak, Fla., in September, where Hurricane Idalia tore through the community. “Your nation has your back, and we’ll be with you until the job is done.”

The biggest portion of the $23.5 billion in Biden’s disaster request is $9 billion to beef up FEMA’s disaster relief fund, which the agency taps for immediate response and recovery efforts once a natural disaster hits. That fund currently has $33.7 billion available, according to FEMA.

About $2.8 billion is set aside for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to deal with housing needs arising from natural disasters, while another $2.8 billion is allocated for aid funneled through the Department of Agriculture to farmers and ranchers who have suffered from crop losses. The White House is also asking for money to repair damaged roads, help schools in disaster-hit areas and bolster loans for small businesses in such communities.

On child care, the White House said the $16 billion it's requesting would help prevent child care centers from closing and help bolster wages for workers who saw their pay get cut during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ensuring sufficient child care is key to the administration's goal of helping more women participate in the workforce.

In particular, Washington Sen. Patty Murray and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the two top Democrats in Congress overseeing government spending, have been aggressively pushing senior administration officials behind the scenes on shoring up federal funding for child care, according to people familiar with the conversations.

Murray, who pressed Biden on child care when he called to congratulate her on her reelection last November, has spoken repeatedly with Office of Budget and Management Director Shalanda Young on the issue. DeLauro, meanwhile, has also talked with Young, Domestic Policy Council director Neera Tanden and Jen Klein, the director of the White House’s Gender Policy Council, to strategize how best to secure more money for child care and other domestic priorities through emergency spending.

The two lawmakers, along with many other Democrats in Congress, are worried about the impact of the so-called “child care cliff,” referring to the billions in federal aid that was approved through the massive pandemic relief package signed into law in the early months of Biden’s presidency but expired last month.

The $24 billion in so-called “stabilization funds” were designed to help child care providers operate during the pandemic, but were required under law to be used by Sept. 30 of this year. The pandemic-era funding aided more than 220,000 providers, covering child care for up to 10 million children, according to Health and Human Services.

“Providers across the country are facing tough decisions about laying off staff or even closing their doors entirely,” Murray said Wednesday after Biden’s request was publicly released. “We’ve got to act on child care to prevent billions more in lost wages, revenue, and growth—not to mention immense new stress on parents already struggling to get by.”

Meanwhile, the $6 billion set aside for broadband would boost the Affordable Connectivity Program — established through Biden's nearly two-year-old infrastructure law — through December 2024 and prevent tens of millions of Americans from losing aid that helps them access high-speed internet, according to the White House.