Senators optimistic about striking deal on stalled disaster aid bill
© Greg Nash
A pair of key senators said Wednesday they are optimistic about the chances of clinching a deal on a long-stalled disaster aid package, while cautioning that they are still negotiating the details.
 
Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyHorowitz offers troubling picture of FBI's Trump campaign probe Horowitz: 'We found no bias' in decision to open probe Horowitz: 'Very concerned' about FBI leaks to Giuliani MORE (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters he was "pretty optimistic" about the chances of reaching an agreement on the legislation, which hit a roadblock last month amid a fight over funding for Puerto Rico.
 
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"We're trying to work out whatever differences we have, and we want to get something the House can go along with," Leahy said. "I think that with the things we discussed -- there's always a few little details -- we could come up with something that the House could accept."
 
His remarks come at a time when both parties have been trading offers.
 
Leahy met with Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyLawmakers strike spending deal to avert shutdown McConnell accuses Democrats of stonewalling funding talks with wall demands  On The Money: Pelosi, Trump tout deal on new NAFTA | McConnell says no trade vote until impeachment trial wraps up | Lawmakers push spending deadline to Thursday MORE (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, on Wednesday afternoon. When asked about the state of negotiations, Shelby told The Hill that his and Leahy's staffs had swapped offers and were hoping to find compromise language.
 
"The vibes are better than they've been," he said, adding that the negotiations were "trending in the right direction."
 
There are still outstanding issues that need to be worked out, including garnering President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Trump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Seven years after Sandy Hook, the politics of guns has changed MORE's support. Shelby said that while his staff has been in touch with the White House throughout the talks, he had not spoken directly to the president.
 
Shelby and Leahy, if they are able to reach an agreement, would need to get House buy-in; the chamber passed a disaster bill earlier this year that got sidelined in the disaster funding fight.
 
Shelby caveated that an agreement wouldn't come together on Thursday, when the Senate will leave town for the week, and that "it might fall apart, but the vibes are better."
 
The disaster aid package fell apart in the Senate last month after Trump criticized Puerto Rico’s handling of previous disaster aid money during a closed-door meeting with GOP senators.
 
The GOP proposal included $600 million for food stamp aid in Puerto Rico. Democrats wanted to amend it to include additional provisions like requiring the Department of Housing and Urban Development to release block grant funding and adding money to help Puerto Rico repair damaged water systems.
 
A spokesman for Leahy declined to detail what was included in the counteroffer made by Democrats this week. But Shelby said the negotiations were focused on making sure Puerto Rico could get access to money that was already available to it, including Community Development Block Grant assistance, "without a lot of strings attached."
 
"They have access to it now, it's not new money. It's money available to them, but to get that money it's a lot of red tape. We're trying to see if we can streamline some of it," Shelby said.
 
Asked about concerns that Trump could divert Puerto Rico money in the future, he added: "We want to make sure that doesn't happen and we want to act in good faith."