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Aug. 17 — A must-pass stopgap spending bill to fund the government this fall is being eyed as a potential vehicle to provide more disaster aid to southern states damaged by recent storms, congressional aides said.
President Barack Obama has approved disaster declarations for many areas of Louisiana and federal assistance has begun flowing to those who suffered damages from the severe flooding. But aides said both the administration and Congress will assess whether lawmakers will need to appropriate additional funds to address losses both in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson plans to travel to the region Aug. 18 to review the federal response. Aides said DHS is weighing whether the administration might have to ask Congress to approve supplemental disaster money for the area.
Both Louisiana and Mississippi are under a state of emergency after days of torrential rain. Some 20,000 individuals were rescued from flooded homes and cars. Members of the Louisiana congressional delegation said in a letter to Obama that the necessary emergency response will exceed the capability of state resources.
“A swift and effective federal response and assistance is necessary to ensure the safety of our citizens, and to mitigate property damage and lessen the damage of this disaster,” wrote the lawmakers, who included the entire Louisiana congressional delegation: Sens. Bill Cassidy (R,) and David Vitter (R), House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R) and Reps. Ralph Abraham (R), Charles Boustany (R), John Fleming (R), Garret Graves (R) and Cedric Richmond (D).
The continuing resolution that Congress plans to take up in September would fund the federal government after current funds expire Sept. 30. The new CR will be needed because so far Congress hasn't finalized and sent to Obama's desk any of the 12 fiscal year 2017 spending bills.
While House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and other appropriators of both parties want a CR running into December, some House conservatives want a longer stopgap to allow a new president to have a say in federal spending decisions (See previous story, 07/11/16).
Whatever its length, the CR is expected to continue funding at current levels. But still to be determined will be any add-ons or “anomalies” that the White House and congressional leaders think need to be addressed. The latter can include bump-ups in funding for particular programs.
Aides said a leading vehicle for the CR is the conference report for the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs spending bill (H.R. 4974) that House and Senate negotiators completed before the July 15 break. That vehicle already includes more than $1 billion in supplemental spending to address the Zika crisis.
Aides said supplemental spending to help Louisiana might be another potential add-on to the must-pass CR. It is unknown, however, if that funding would be done on an “emergency” basis as Republican leaders already rejected Obama's request for $1.9 billion in Zika funds without offsets, they said.
Lawmakers including Scalise and Cassidy in 2013 voted against a large supplemental spending bill to help northeastern states hurt by Hurricane Sandy. But Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said his state is now looking for a robust response from the federal government.
“We're going to rely on the federal government to the maximum extent possible, which is why we're glad additional parishes have been added” to the emergency declaration list, Edwards said at a press conference.
The White House said Obama approved disaster declarations for numerous parishes in order to allow the state to begin to tap federal assets.
White House spokesman Jen Friedman said the Federal Emergency Management Agency is continuing to respond to emergency needs, including getting people into temporary housing.
“Already more than 70,000 people have registered for individual assistance under the federal disaster declaration and over 9,000 have filed flood insurance claims,” Friedman said in a statement.
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