Congress punts on disaster aid amid standoff with Trump, Dems

Lawmakers are punting on billions in disaster aid for parts of the Midwest, Southeast and Puerto Rico as they leave Washington for two weeks without an agreement.

A gang of GOP senators, including Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyIs this any way for NASA to build a lunar lander? In-space refueling vs heavy lift? NASA and SpaceX choose both Budget deal sparks scramble to prevent shutdown MORE (R-Ala.), went to the White House on Thursday as part of an effort to make headway in the stalled talks.

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But the meeting with President TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham: America must 'accept the pain that comes in standing up to China' Weld 'thrilled' more Republicans are challenging Trump New data challenges Trump's economic narrative MORE, which senators described as “nice,” failed to break the logjam that has stalemated disaster aid negotiations ever since the president criticized Puerto Rico during a closed-door lunch with Republicans last month.

Instead, the disaster aid fight will drag on into next month. The House adjourned on Wednesday, and senators are leaving town on Thursday. 

Lawmakers will return on April 29, when senators are expected to focus on a slate of nominations teed up by Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTwo years after Harvey's devastation, the wake-up call has not been heeded McGrath releases ad blasting McConnell with coal miners in Kentucky: 'Which side are you on?' Prediction: 2020 election is set to be hacked, if we don't act fast MORE (R-Ky.).

Shelby said after the White House meeting that they had agreed to essentially keep talking through the break as they look for a way to end the “standoff” before the two-week recess is over.

“We continue to work. The president listened; he suggested a few things,” Shelby said. “He instructed his staff and our staff on approps to see what they could do.”

Shelby added that there were “great needs” for disaster relief funding, but “we’re trying to reach a point where we can get it and not just be at a standoff.” He said they had talked about “parameters” with the president but didn't get into a specific proposal.

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The Senate Republican disaster aid bill provides $13.45 billion for recovery from recent storms, hurricanes and fires, including $600 million in food aid for Puerto Rico. GOP senators are betting that it would be politically damaging for Democrats, several of whom are running for president, to oppose the disaster relief money, some of which could go to Iowa, which hosts the first-in-the-nation caucus.

But Democrats, and top Puerto Rican officials, argue the amount is insufficient to help the island tackle lingering structural damage caused by the 2017 hurricanes.

Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyAppropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid House panel investigating decision to resume federal executions Graham moves controversial asylum bill through panel; Democrats charge he's broken the rules MORE (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, tried to offer a counterproposal that would have increased money for Puerto Rico, including funding to repair its water infrastructure, but also included $2.5 billion in new funding for communities in the Midwest and Southeast that were impacted by severe storms late last month. It was blocked by Republicans.

Leahy and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerJewish Democratic congresswoman and veteran blasts Trump's 'disloyalty' comments Schumer says Trump encouraging anti-Semites Saagar Enjeti: Biden's latest blunder; Krystal Ball: Did Schumer blow our chance to beat McConnell? MORE (D-N.Y.) introduced a new bill on Thursday evening that provides $17.2 billion in disaster aid, including $3 billion in funding for recent disasters in the Midwest and Southeast, lining up with new legislation from House Democrats.

Support for recovery money is usually overwhelmingly bipartisan, but the Senate package — meant to respond to a spate of recent hurricanes, wildfires and storms — was derailed by a fight between Democrats and Trump over additional funding for Puerto Rico.

Trump questioned the island territory’s handling of past disaster relief money during last month’s private lunch with Republicans. Since then, the disaster aid package has devolved into a partisan blame game with both sides saying the other is responsible for failing to reach a deal.

“It’s frustrating, it’s mind boggling. I think it’s too much politics involved in the quest to help people,” Shelby told reporters this week.

Asked whose fault it was, Shelby started to answer the question when Leahy came up behind him.

“We brought up a couple of packages; unfortunately, the Republican leader thought he had to object,” Leahy told reporters, prompting Shelby to interrupt him and add that “the Democratic leader had some objections, too.”

Schumer ripped Republicans on Thursday, accusing them of being unwilling to break with Trump on additional help for Puerto Rico, which was devastated by back-to-back hurricanes in 2017.

“It’s an absolute travesty that this chamber is recessing without a compromise on much-needed funding for disaster relief,” Schumer said. “It’s a tragedy that the Republican leadership in this chamber has refused to help American citizens before going into recess.”

McConnell, asked about the issue during a pen-and-pad briefing with reporters on Thursday, said Congress needed to act quickly to get the money to impacted communities, but offered no clear path out of the standoff.

“We got a real disaster here and it’s just not the southern part of the United States or Puerto Rico,” he said. “I think we ought to quit playing games with it on each side and see if we can very quickly agree to some emergency that benefits all of these areas.”

Both sides have traded offers on a potential disaster aid agreement, but so far they’ve come up empty.

Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohn (Johnny) Hardy IsaksonGeorgia senator discharged from hospital after fall Georgia senator hospitalized after fall Senate GOP raises concerns about White House stopgap plan to avoid shutdown MORE (R-Ga.), who has been involved in the talks, appeared optimistic earlier Thursday, saying he thought there was a path to a deal.

“We’re leaving town without a deal but with much better hope than we had before,” he said. “I was overcoming a lot of depression, I guess you would say, earlier in the week and late last week, just because I couldn’t feel anything moving that much.”

But by the end of the day Thursday an obvious pathway to a deal had not materialized, and 14 GOP senators, including Isakson, released a statement voicing frustration about the stalled legislation.

A senior Senate Democratic aide told the Hill on Thursday that Democrats had made an offer to McConnell on Wednesday of agreeing to go to conference with the House to work out the disaster aid bill, but that the GOP leader’s office had not yet responded.

Asked Thursday about whether he would support using a shell bill to allow the Senate to go to conference with the House, McConnell sidestepped, but said they shouldn’t let the issue get “kicked down the road” and that “it’s time to sit down and get an agreement.”

The fight over the stalemated disaster aid bill has at times gotten personal. Isakson told reporters that during a recent conversation Leahy brought up the 2013 vote on relief after Hurricane Sandy.

“The senator from Vermont called me last Friday and said, ‘I want to show you something,’ so he sent over this two-page spread on that vote. Of the 37 ‘no’ votes, I was one of them,” Isakson said.

But Leahy, asked by reporters about Isakson’s accusation, downplayed the contentiousness of their talk.

“No, no,” he said. “It was in response to something he said. ... I love Sen. Isakson. He’s a dear, dear friend.”