Disaster Aid Seen Advancing as McConnell Resists Funding Boost

By Nancy Ognanovich

Another influx of disaster aid is expected to soon be on its way to help areas hit hard by hurricanes and wildfires under a plan being pushed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

While the exact details and timing of the strategy were in flux, Senate aides said McConnell is working to clear the package no later than Oct. 23 for President Donald Trump’s signature.

McConnell is resisting eleventh-hour efforts by senators from disaster-hit areas to add billions more in funding to the $36.5 billion House-passed package, aides said. Even as they pushed for more money the Republican leader “hotlined” the measure Oct. 19 for final passage early the following week, they said. Minus unanimous consent, the leader still is expected to undertake procedural moves to force a final vote before Trump visits the Senate on Oct. 24.

“Hopefully we can get an agreement,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.). “There are some who would like to see changes in it and so it will depend on when we can get consent to move it.”

Senators are under pressure to approve the House-passed bill (H. Res. 569) and put off getting more money for areas struck by this fall’s hurricanes and wildfires in the third disaster aid request that Trump is expected to send to Capitol Hill in a matter of weeks. Any changes would necessitate another vote in the House and slow the release of $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $16 billion to shore up the National Flood Insurance Program. The bill also includes $576.5 million to combat western wildfires.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), McConnell’s top deputy, told reporters he still is working with other senators to try to get more money for Texas, Florida, and other states hit by storms and fires, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. But he admitted that he might relent in exchange for a commitment that the extra money—including the $18 billion requested by the Texas delegation—be included in the next supplemental request.

"[W]e’re trying to determine whether we can get a firm commitment on the next supplemental to deal with the unmet needs of these various disaster areas,” Cornyn told reporters.

Pressure to Pass Bill Minus Changes

Cornyn spoke as the Senate was engaged in what is known as a vote-a-rama on the fiscal year 2018 budget resolution, passage of which is McConnell’s top priority. The budget resolution is a critical element of the Republican leader’s strategy to pass tax legislation this year.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) also said work on the budget is a top focus for Democrats and said he didn’t expect an effort to renegotiate the House-passed disaster aid package would be successful. He said the push for more funds would begin anew with the third supplemental request, now expected in November.

The House bill ignored the $18 billion request from the Texas delegation as well as others from the Florida delegation and Puerto Rico officials that when combined rose to the $50 billion mark.

“I’m pretty disappointed with what the House sent over and we’re looking to see if there’s a way forward on this supplemental to address some other unmet needs,” Cornyn said.

Among other things, he said, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) want more money for Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Nelson said between $2.5 billion and $3 billion in aid is being sought just to address damage to citrus crops.

“The problem is that I’ve learned that if you don’t get something in this bill that someone promises you in the next bill then that promise never seems to get fulfilled. As time goes by people tend to forget and it loses its sense of urgency,” Cornyn told reporters.

Nelson said he’s angry that the White House “nixed” the money he wanted for Florida’s citrus growers and said he’s taking a “trust but verify” stance to make sure Trump follows through on a pledge to include the money in the next package.

“So I just put a hold on one of his nominees to make sure we get this money, as promised,” Nelson said.

Nelson said the hold is on Russell Vought to serve as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Trump to Senate Oct. 24

Meanwhile, Trump met with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello (D) to discuss both the current recovery operations and more long-term rebuilding efforts that include the construction of a power plant.

“I will say that I have given my blessing to Congress, and Congress is working with you and your representatives on coming up with a plan and a payment plan, and how it’s all going to be funded—because you are talking about some substantial numbers,” Trump said during a press availability with Rossello.

Trump repeated that FEMA and other federal agencies can’t stay in Puerto Rico “forever.” But he said Puerto Rico will need more time and assistance than Texas and Florida require to recover from Harvey and Irma.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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