Congress on cusp of delivering long-overdue disaster aid
WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress is rushing to wrap up a long-overdue $19 billion disaster aid bill, but only after Democrats insisted on jettisoning President Donald Trump’s $4.5 billion request to handle an unprecedented influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The measure, which has more than doubled in size since the House first addressed it last year, would deliver aid for southern states suffering from last fall’s hurricanes, Midwestern states deluged with springtime floods, and fire-ravaged rural California, among others.
The Senate voted to pass the bill on Thursday afternoon. House lawmakers have left for the Memorial Day recess but the House could try to pass the bill by voice vote on Friday, said a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Several Republican senators said Trump has agreed to sign the bill even though money to deal with the border crisis has been removed.
Much of the disaster relief money would go to Trump strongholds such has the Florida Panhandle, rural Georgia and North Carolina, and Iowa and Nebraska. Several military facilities would receive money to rebuild, including Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.
Disaster aid bills are invariably bipartisan, but this round has bogged down.
After weeks of fighting, Democrats bested Trump and won further aid to Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory that was slammed by back to back hurricanes in 2017. Trump has feuded with the island’s Democratic officials and has repeatedly misstated that Puerto Rico has received much more aid than it has.
Trump originally wanted no money for Puerto Rico before agreeing to $600 million for its food stamp program. But ultimately, Democrats say they secured about $1.4 billion, including money to help Puerto Rico’s cash-poor government meet matching requirements for further disaster rebuilding efforts.
Talks this week over Trump’s border request broke down, however, over conditions Democrats wanted to place on money to provide care and shelter for asylum-seeking Central American migrants. Talks were closely held, but aides said liberal and Hispanic forces among House Democrats simply could not come to terms with administration negotiators.
“However important these other issues may be, we have an obligation to get this disaster relief package over the finish line,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who dictated the terms of the agreement on Thursday, because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was in a procedural box.
But border needs are increasingly desperate and pressure will be intense to act when lawmakers return next month from vacation. Money to house and care for migrants is expected to run out next month.
The bill is most desperately sought by southern Republicans such as Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, seeking to deliver aid to farmers who lost billions of dollars when Hurricane Michael hit last fall during harvest season. Midwestern Republicans such as Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa also pressed for the legislation.
Democrats filibustered the measure last month over Trump’s refusal to sign off on money to speed further disaster aid to Puerto Rico. But they didn’t pay a political price. Instead, pressure built on Republicans such as Perdue, and Trump agreed to sign the measure after a phone call with Perdue and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
“The president said, ‘OK,'” Shelby said.
Democrats secured a provision that would block Trump from diverting any of the money in the bill for military projects toward building his border wall. Trump has declared a national emergency and has said he is considering transferring up to $3.6 billion from military construction to border barriers.