Push to Boost Disaster Aid Wanes as Senate Budget Fight Looms

By Nancy Ognanovich

Pressure to increase the $36.5 billion House-passed disaster aid package appears to be lessening in the Senate, where some spending proposals appear to be on hold as a fight over the fiscal 2018 budget dominates the chamber.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Democrats’ proposals to increase the amount of money in the bill to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands now are on the back burner. He said they are likely instead to make their push for extra funds in a third supplemental spending request that President Donald Trump is expected to send to Capitol Hill in a few weeks.

“We did get some good money for Puerto Rico and the [U.S.] Virgin Islands and we got a loan program, which they need,” Schumer said. “We certainly are going to try to get more in a third supplemental, which is needed. I don’t know if we’re going to renegotiate this one.”

Senators are under pressure to pass the disaster aid package (H. Res. 569) soon to shore up the Federal Emergency Management Agency and National Flood Insurance Program. Besides providing initial relief for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the $36.5 billion bill has more hurricane recovery funds for Texas and Florida and money for western states to combat fires.

But Schumer’s comments are at odds with those of Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has criticized the House package for not coming close to what his home state and others need for their recovery. The Texas congressional delegation requested another $18 billion for their state to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Cornyn told reporters he’s not ready to stop trying to increase spending in the package—even if it means giving Democrats more of what they want in the short term.

“We’re still working on this, and we may be able to find a way to make this attractive to Schumer,” Cornyn said after meeting with lawmakers in his office.

Focus on Budget, Tax

Schumer and Cornyn spoke as the Senate geared up for a vote-a-rama on the budget resolution, which Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) views as essential to laying the groundwork for a major tax bill this fall.

McConnell continued to keep his own comments on the new disaster aid package to a minimum while the Senate tackles the budget. The package includes an influx of $18.7 billion for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund and $16 billion to forgive debt and allow the NFIP to process claims. It also carries $576.5 million for fighting wildfires.

Work on the budget is expected to last well into the evening of Oct. 19, after which some Senate lawmakers and aides said there is a possibility the chamber will turn to the disaster package.

That schedule suggests McConnell could quickly bring up the disaster package after a long evening session and pass it quickly without changes. But Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said he doubts the aid package will be brought up before the week of Oct. 23.

“I think we’re going to have a handful of votes on [budget] vote-a-rama and be gone,” Durbin said, adding that there is less urgency to increase the funding in the current legislation.

“We have two more disaster packages coming,” Durbin said, referring to a supplemental the White House is preparing for more long-term recovery and other funds that are expected to be added to a year-end omnibus appropriations bill.

Cornyn acknowledged that there is little time to nail down a deal.

"[McConnell] hasn’t set any deadlines, but we know we have to act with some dispatch,” Cornyn told reporters.

Third Package Under Development

Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas also made separate requests to Congress for extra money to be included in the current package. Combined, the amounts total about $50 billion.

But attention also appears to be shifting to the third supplemental request that Trump is expected to make soon. Trump is expected to meet Oct. 19 with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello to discuss recovery and rebuilding, the White House said.

“We will continue working hand-in-hand with local leaders in all areas of our country that have been impacted by several natural disasters in recent months,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

The White House announced separately that Trump had signed into law a bill (H.R. 1117) requiring FEMA to submit a report to Congress on plans to improve the administration of assistance during an emergency or disaster.

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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