Disaster aid vote is expected after recess, but what’s in it is still in the works

Several issues, including Puerto Rico, continue to be sticking points

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., conduct a news conference in February. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate leaders are teeing up a vote after the weeklong St. Patrick’s Day recess on an as-yet-undefined disaster aid package for victims of major storms and other natural disasters during the last two years.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on Thursday filed a motion to limit debate on proceeding to a $14.2 billion disaster aid bill the House passed in January.

Georgia Republican Sen. David Perdue, sponsor on a competing $13.6 billion version, said the initial vote to proceed would likely occur on March 26. But the exact contents of the measure the Senate will take up will be unveiled as a substitute amendment that was still being negotiated by appropriators in both chambers.

The Perdue bill is similar in many respects to the House legislation as well as a $12.8 billion package Senate Republicans introduced in January. The House bill contains a little more agricultural assistance than either of the Senate versions, while the House bill and the Perdue bill would also provide $600 million in aid to Puerto Rico to restore nutrition benefits that were cut in early March when funding from the last aid package ran out.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby said the ultimate version could be more expansive than the earlier iterations, in part because of the recent deadly tornadoes that ripped through parts of the Alabama Republican’s home state and Georgia. And Democrats on Wednesday were still pressing for additional provisions to cover damages from the 2017 hurricanes, including Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico.

Perdue said he’d been talking to appropriators “every day for the last three weeks” to try to dislodge an aid package and bring it to the floor. Perdue said Shelby and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Appropriations Committee’s ranking Democrat, were “hammering out” final details on the package. “The president has been involved and said, ‘You know, look. These are things I will do, these are things I have concerns about,’” said Perdue, who speaks regularly to President Donald Trump.

As a result of those discussions, Perdue said there would be additions to the package.“We just don’t know what yet,” he said.

Shelby said on Wednesday the disaster package wouldn’t move before recess as appropriators had wanted because of arguments between Republicans and Democrats over the bill’s size and scope.

Perdue confirmed Thursday that Puerto Rico remains a key sticking point. “It’s one of the issues that they’re trying to accommodate,” he said. “Look, the president’s trying to meet the needs, he’s trying to meet all the needs that need to be addressed. And that’s what this is about, is just, really, to what degree and how.”

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