Disaster aid becomes hostage to funding fight


A massive disaster aid package is getting caught up in a broader political fight on Capitol Hill over spending, immigration and other contentious issues.

The stalled relief money may wind up in the next round of government funding, as the issue is quickly being overtaken by a race to prevent a shutdown and automatic across-the-board spending cuts.  

Senate Democrats are holding up the disaster aid because they say it doesn’t provide enough relief to hurricane-ravaged places like Puerto Rico. They are seeking changes to the legislation before allowing it to move forward.

But some Republicans have reacted angrily to the move, accusing Democratic senators of blocking the disaster bill so that they can have more leverage in the spending talks.

“Why do Senate Ds slow walk disaster relief (for Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas and the West) plus defense needs in order to force a DACA deal?” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Friday in a tweet, referring to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which Trump is ending. 

Democrats are seeking protections for people enrolled in DACA, a program that has allowed some immigrants who came to the country illegally as children to live and work in the United States.

Cornyn said lawmakers “are negotiating in good faith on DACA and will beat the deadline if Ds do so as well; no need to abandon USG’s other responsibilities.”

The impasse in the Senate comes after House members from Florida and Texas demanded that Congress tackle the disaster funding before the end of 2017.

Right before leaving town for the holidays, the House passed a mammoth $81 billion relief bill — nearly double the White House’s request — aimed at helping communities impacted by recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as wildfires in California.

The package includes nearly $28 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more than $26 billion in community block grants and more than $12 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Congress has already approved more than $50 billion in disaster aid since September to help areas affected by hurricanes and wildfires. If the latest $81 billion package is enacted, it would bring the total amount spent on helping people affected by natural disasters to more than $130 billion.

House GOP leadership was forced to pass the relief money as a stand-alone bill, rather than part of last month’s continuing resolution (CR), after some conservatives balked at spending $81 billion without offsets.

But Senate GOP leadership punted the recovery aid into 2018, leaving the bill to languish as leaders scramble to hash out a deal to fund the government past Jan. 19 and raise federal spending caps. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) signaled the disaster money has been folded into the larger spending talks, urging leadership to secure a “global” agreement that addresses several outstanding issues, including the relief funding.

“We said we want to come to an agreement and a quick agreement, but it has got to be fair, and it has got to be involving the things we think are important, as well as the things they think are important,” Schumer told reporters, referring to a meeting between congressional leadership and top White House officials. 

Democrats argue they were left out of the loop on the disaster aid bill by the Trump administration and congressional Republicans.

Schumer said the House-passed bill didn’t do enough to help Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands or states ravaged by fires.

“The administration submitted its proposal three weeks ago. They didn’t consult us,” he said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who recently visited Puerto Rico with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), called the Trump administration’s response to the devastation on the island territory “shameful and disgraceful.”

As of late last month, nearly half of Puerto Ricans were still without electricity. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has asked for more than $94 billion in recovery aid.

Blumenthal, noting that Rossello’s request is far higher than what is in the House bill, said the total funding in the legislation “has to be vastly increased.”

“In the short-term relief package that is coming to us from the House of Representatives, we must make sure that some of that aid, a significant proportion, is specifically targeted to Puerto Rico,” he said.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) placed the House-passed bill on the Senate calendar. The move will allow him to bring it up once lawmakers are able to work out a larger agreement.

But in order for McConnell to fast-track an emergency relief measure in the Senate, he’ll need unanimous consent — meaning not a single senator objects. And Democrats aren’t the only ones who have problems with the legislation.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), asked about the status of the disaster bill, pointed to Cornyn and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who have been demanding revisions to the measure.

Cornyn, whose state was hit by Hurricane Harvey, said the House’s top-line number of $81 billion could remain, with senators shuffling around how the money is allocated.

“We’re visiting with the Appropriations Committee members here in the Senate to talk about what modifications might need to be made, but I think they could all be made within that top line,” he said.

Cornyn, who is looking at increasing the block grant funding, predicted Democrats would also try to increase the overall price of the bill to get more help for Puerto Rico.

“We’re happy to work with them to try to come up with something that works for everybody,” he said.

The haggling over disaster aid comes amid fierce debates over government funding and immigration.

Democrats believe the fights over preventing a government shutdown and increasing the budget caps give them leverage because Republicans will need their votes in the Senate to do both. They want to ensure that there is also a DACA fix and an equal funding increase in the package for defense and nondefense programs, among other things. 

But with congressional leadership appearing to make little progress on a deal this week, it’s likely that another short-term CR will be needed on Jan. 19 to give appropriators more time to write a massive, trillion-dollar “omnibus” package. 

The disaster aid could hitch a ride on the spending bill, but that may cause consternation among fiscal conservatives in the House, who signaled last month that they would oppose the December CR if it included emergency relief money.

House Democrats refused to supply votes for that stopgap measure, so GOP leadership had to corral enough Republican support to avoid a shutdown.

This time around, however, the funding package may have some Democratic buy-in if leaders reach a broader deal.

And some House Republicans signaled that they would be open to attaching a revised disaster aid bill to a spending measure, as long as there is bipartisan agreement in both chambers on the issue.

“I don’t have any objections to that, there just has to be an agreement,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior appropriator, told The Hill on Thursday.

“You can’t force anything down the other side’s throat. We passed this through the House, explain to us what your problem is, and let’s find a way to deal with these problems together.”

Tags Charles Schumer Chris Murphy John Cornyn Mitch McConnell Richard Shelby Ted Cruz Tom Cole
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