Lawmakers Clamor for Disaster Aid on Spending Stopgap

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By Nancy Ognanovich

Sept. 14 — Congressional leaders from both parties are swapping offers on the details of a must-pass government spending bill in order to cement a deal before lawmakers leave town at the end of the Sept. 12 week, lawmakers and aides said.

Besides the details of how more than $1 billion in Zika funds will be spent, top Republicans and Democrats are negotiating an eleventh-hour appeal by many states to get disaster assistance attached to the new continuing resolution (CR). Also still being negotiated are policy items, including federal support for Planned Parenthood.

Lawmakers said their goal is to nail down an agreement by Sept. 15 in order to set the stage for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring the measure up early the week of Sept. 19. After Senate action, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) plans to quickly bring the new CR to a vote in the House.

Minus congressional action, government funding will lapse Sept. 30. Leaders are resorting to another CR to prevent any threat of a shutdown as none of the 12 regular appropriations bills were finalized and sent to President Barack Obama's desk this year.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), McConnell's top lieutenant, told reporters that he had joined lawmakers from Louisiana, West Virginia, and other states in seeking to use the CR as a vehicle to steer money back to their states to help with storm damage. The previous evening, Louisiana sent a request to the White House detailing its need for $2.8 billion in federal aid, he said.

“If anything you might see some kind of partial downpayment on this but that's still up in the air,” Cornyn said of the various states' requests.

Democrats Want Flint Aid

McConnell's plan to finish the CR by week's end and allow senators to depart two weeks early for the campaign trail fell away as talks slowed with Democrats. However, lawmakers said Republicans sent Democrats a written offer late Sept. 13 and Democrats were developing a response late Sept. 14.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) kept his comments to a minimum after receiving the Republicans' offer. He said both the CR and the Zika portion were a “work in progress.”

The developments suggest the Senate could use a large part of next week to debate and pass the measure, leaving the House with little time to consider it before the deadline. Among other things, Reid warned that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) may try to delay the bill if it doesn't prevent the transfer of authority over internet domains to an international organization.

Cornyn said disaster aid emerged recently as a possible add-on to the CR but a downpayment may be all that can be accommodated in the stopgap. Besides funding that Louisiana and Texas want, West Virginia is seeking $310 million in Community Development Block Grant funds to address flooding, he said.

“That's what happens once the gates open and then there's a lot of people in line,” Cornyn said.

Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) confirmed that Democrats are still seeking help to address the lead contamination of the water supply in Flint, Mich.

“We're open to it—including Flint,” Mikulski said when asked about including disaster aid on the CR.

Policy Haggling Continues

Policy language and federal support for a number of programs also remain at issue, and Reid said Democrat's are not satisfied with how the CR addresses Planned Parenthood.

Cornyn characterized Democrats' stance as similar to one they took in 2015 on a human trafficking bill where they sought to prevent the expansion of the so-called Hyde amendment that prohibits federal funds from being used for abortions. He charged Democrats actually tried to erode that law and are similarly working to revise existing law to help Planned Parenthood.

“What we had to do is get back to the line of scrimmage where the status quo was maintained and I think that's probably what we need to do here, maintain the status quo,” Corny said.

Meanwhile, Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Development Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said he's opposed to the Obama's administration bid to use the CR to change how the Export-Import Bank makes loans. At present the bank is hamstrung as it lacks a quorum and Shelby's panel hasn't filled a key slot on the board.

“I'm fundamentally opposed to that,” Shelby said when asked about the proposal to eliminate the quorum requirement. “The majority of Republicans voted not to reauthorize [the bank].”

“It's big corporate welfare, and you'd oppose it if you were a conservative,” Shelby said.

Bloomberg Philanthropies provides financial support to Planned Parenthood.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

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