September 18, 2019

Congress Reaches Deal on Long-Deferred Disaster Relief Package

Congress Reaches Deal on Long-Deferred Disaster Relief Package


WASHINGTON — Senate lawmakers on Thursday announced they had reached agreement on a long-delayed disaster relief package, ending a monthslong impasse over billions of dollars in aid for farmers and communities struggling to recover from an onslaught of natural disasters over the last two years.

Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Senator David Perdue, Republican of Georgia, secured a commitment from President Trump that he would support the $19.1 billion aid bill, senators said, despite a decision not to include any of the administration’s request for money to help feed and care for migrants detained at the southwestern border.

The deal, reached nine days before the start of this year’s hurricane season, is expected to pass the Senate later Thursday. It marks the end of an arduous partisan debate that had stymied recovery efforts across the country by delaying the allocation of additional funds.

Lawmakers in both chambers had pushed hard to reconcile the disaster aid package and the White House’s border security request before leaving for a weeklong Memorial Day recess, with House Democrats sending their latest offer to Republicans around 10 p.m. Wednesday night, according to an aide.

Congress has not passed a broad disaster relief package since February 2018, when lawmakers included nearly $90 billion in aid in a budget deal that reopened the government after a government shutdown. In the year since, natural disasters have devastated the country: hurricanes in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas, wildfires in California, and floods across much of the Midwest.

“This legislation has already taken far too long to deliver,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said at a news conference Tuesday. “It is past time to put partisan politics aside, move past any tangential questions and secure a final agreement that can become law.”

Approving emergency relief bills after a natural disaster has typically involved a swift display of bipartisanship, but efforts to reach a compromise this year have been gridlocked. Mr. Trump’s refusal to accept additional assistance to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico threw up the first roadblock. Negotiations were further complicated by his request for billions of dollars more for the border.

Senate Republicans, for months, were not willing to defy the president’s demands and dare him to veto a bill not to his liking.

In the meantime, Puerto Ricans saw some nutritional assistance expire in March. The first named tropical storm of the year already formed — then dissipated — in the Atlantic Ocean, and hard-hit military bases and communities in coastal states have gone begging.

The delay has been particularly hard on farmers, already bruised by the administration’s trade war and reluctant to move forward in the middle of planting season without the promise of federal aid.

But Senate Democrats, with the backing of their counterparts in the House, refused to endorse any legislation that did not include substantial new money for Puerto Rico’s efforts to recover from two hurricanes in 2017. While the island had previously received supplemental aid — some of which has yet to be dispersed — Democrats argued that the Trump administration has neglected the island, which does not have voting representation in Congress, warranting even more funds.

The president, for his part, has repeatedly complained falsely that $91 billion has been sent to the island since the 2017 hurricanes. That number, according to the Office of Management and Budget, is the budget office’s estimate of how much the island could receive over the next two decades.

Amid that scuffle, two disaster-relief bills failed in the Senate, and the upper chamber did not take up a House-passed bill that would have sent $19.1 billion in relief across the country. Negotiators also disagreed over Mr. Shelby’s push to include language that would release funds from a harbor maintenance fund, which he ultimately agreed to leave out.

In recent weeks, demands from the administration and its Republican allies to include funds for the southwestern border eclipsed Puerto Rico as the major sticking point in negotiations, as the administration escalated its efforts to respond to a surge of asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants.

Having previously questioned Mr. Trump’s request for border security, Democrats balked at allocating billions of dollars more without more oversight on how it would be spent. Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, described the Democrats’ approach as “a good faith offer, but not a blank check.”

The administration’s request for more beds at migrant processing centers was rejected by Democrats as a nonstarter.



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