Senate approves deal on disaster aid, leaves out border money Trump demanded
WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a $19.1 billion disaster aid package, advancing legislation that would break a months-long impasse over federal funding for stretches of the country afflicted by natural disasters.
A top Senate Republican said the White House has signed off on the bipartisan compromise. House lawmakers left town Thursday, leaving prospects for rapid passage there uncertain — though the chamber’s Democratic leaders hope to use a procedural move to quickly advance the measure on Friday.
The deal, which Congressional leaders presented hours before the Senate vote, would send aid to victims of western wildfires, midwestern flooding and hurricanes in the Southeast and Puerto Rico, as well as to other disaster-affected areas across the country.
The package does not include the U.S.-Mexico border funding President Trump’s administration requested. That demand had proved contentious, and leaving it out sidestepped a fight over immigration that had further complicated the delicate disaster aid negotiations.
One day after President Donald Trump indicated he would not cut deals with Congress while he’s being investigated, he cut a deal with Congress. But disaster aid almost didn’t happen… https://t.co/zSKG10SEYK
— Burgess Everett (@burgessev) May 23, 2019
The Senate passed the measure 85 to 8, bipartisan backing that follows months of finger-pointing as Democrats, Republicans and Trump fought over funding for Puerto Rico and other issues.
Several hurdles remain for the bill to be signed into law.
Romney on why he was one of eight to opposed disaster aid bill. Says it was "loaded up with billions of dollars in unrelated pet projects." “Instead of rushing through billion-dollar spending bills at the eleventh hour without sufficient input or debate, Congress" should budget
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) May 23, 2019
Senators say they feel confident Trump will sign the deal, but White House officials on Thursday afternoon were trying to quickly scrub through all the details to see what was in the package and what had been left out.
Trump has shown a willingness to sunder past bipartisan pacts. Lawmakers in December said they believed the president would agree to a bipartisan deal to avert a government shutdown. But Trump rejected the compromise because it denied him funding for a border wall, precipiating the longest shutdown in U.S. history.
The disaster package would need approval from the House, where lawmakers left for the Memorial Day recess before the Senate voted Thursday. The House is scheduled to meet for a brief “pro forma” session with few lawmakers present.
House leaders hope to advance the measure by unanimous consent, according a senior House Democratic aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the plans. The maneuver would allow the House to pass the bill with only a few members present, but a single objection from a lawmaker could sink the package until the House returns.
Before the agreement was announced, a Republican aide — speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters — said conservatives opposed to new government spending could object.
Despite the remaining hurdles, prospects for passing legislation before the recess appear much brighter than they did early Thursday, when disputes over how the border money would be spent had appeared to put a deal out of reach.
Perdue and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., whose state is awaiting federal money to rebuild from Hurricane Michael, called President Trump and won approval for a disaster aid plan that left out additional immigration-related funding for the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services.
“We didn’t think we could wait any longer to get this done,” said Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., who helped close the deal in a conversation with Trump on Thursday. “Sometimes when you put too much together, you can’t get anything done. So what he did today was break through a logjam and say: Look, let’s divide this and start working on border security individually or independently, and let’s get this done today.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said Congress would return to border funding in a separate measure after recess.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the disaster deal was reached in spite of Trump, not because of him — noting Trump twice blocked previous congressional accords on the legislation.
“Republicans are learning that they’re going to have to break from the president to get anything done because the president … has been an obstructionist force – insisting on his own way when he knows that his own way can’t pass,” he said.
WATCH LIVE: Schumer speaks to reporters after Senate disaster aid bill vote https://t.co/rdtEW4LDMn
— PBS NewsHour (@NewsHour) May 23, 2019
The disaster bill has been pending since last year, and the slow pace of talks has frustrated lawmakers of both parties, especially as past disaster bills have often been bipartisan and rarely suffered the delays or rancor that has accompanied this one.
For much of that time, the main sticking point has been a struggle between Democrats — who pushed for more aid to Puerto Rico — and Trump, who has spent months complaining about fiscal mismanagement by the territory’s government and has drastically overstated the sums sent to the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
Puerto Rico, which is still trying to recover from the 2017 hurricane, will receive more than $1 billion under the package, according to a House Democratic aide. That includes $600 million in emergency funding for Puerto Rico’s food stamps program, as well as more than $300 million to help the island cover costs for infrastructure repair projects.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló urged passage of the legislation in a statement on Thursday. He also referenced his government’s disputes with Trump about recovery funding in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which devastated communities there and killed thousands of people in 2017.
“Even though Puerto Rico was repeatedly told that we would not receive one more dollar in disaster relief, this legislation shows that many in Washington, D.C. understand that our recovery is not complete,” Rosselló said.
The White House on Thursday announced a separate program to distribute $16 billion to farmers hurt by Trump’s trade war with China.
China has placed tariffs on incoming U.S. crops such as corn and soybeans, cutting foreign demand and, consequently, domestic prices for U.S. farmers. Beijing levied the import taxes in retaliation against the Trump administration’s tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese goods coming into the United States.
The legislation the Senate approved Thursday also includes billions for farmers in the southeast and other regions hit by 2018 and 2019 natural disasters, as well as close to $1 billion for repairs to military installations that suffered damages from Hurricane Florence and Maria, as well as other natural disasters, according to a summary provided by Shelby’s office.
Top Democratic negotiations, such as Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., cheered news of the disaster aid agreement.
“Chairman Lowey is pleased that President Trump and Republicans have agreed to bipartisan, comprehensive disaster relief legislation that will meet urgent needs across the country,” said Lowey spokesman Evan Hollander on Thurday. “If the Senate passes the legislation today, House Democrats support clearing it through the House as soon as possible.”
The congressional deadlock has stalled support for victims of wildfires in California and other western states, southeastern residents hurt by hurricanes, Midwestern states that faced historic flooding earlier this year, and other areas. In Puerto Rico, more than 1 million residents have seen their food stamp payments cut after the program’s emergency funding expired in March.
In recent talks, negotiators had closed the gap on Puerto Rico funding, only to see a new dispute spring up over the Trump administration’s demand for $4.5 billion in new border funding.
While lawmakers from both parties broadly agree border agencies need more funding to address the influx of individuals and families arriving from Central America, Democrats and the White House are split over how the funding would be used. Democrats demanded restrictions to prevent it from going to certain detention and enforcement programs they opposed, while the Trump administration sought more leeway.
Before the agreement was announced Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had urged the Senate to pass her chamber’s version of the disaster bill, a package that won the support of all of the chamber’s Democrats and 34 Republicans.
She also provided a preview into a fight over border spending that will be waiting for lawmakers when they return in June.
Adressing reporters at a news conference, the House leader declared the Trump administration’s conditions for border funding “unacceptable.”