Senate to take one last shot at disaster, border aid bill

The remaining sticking points are over immigration and oversight provisions related to Trump’s border funding request

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., arrives for a news conference after the Republican Senate Policy Luncheon on May 14, 2019. On Thursday McConnell said on the Senate floor, that his colleagues need to come up with a disaster aid compromise “today, because one way or another the Senate is not leaving without taking action.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Republicans were huddling behind closed doors Thursday morning to discuss their next move on supplemental aid for disaster victims and handling a huge influx of migrants at the southern border.

One emerging possibility was to drop billions of dollars in aid the White House is seeking for border-related agencies, including Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.

[Republicans reviewing Democrats’ latest disaster aid offer]

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said he’d back that approach if it meant expediting assistance to storm-ravaged communities across the country and in island territories like Puerto Rico.

“I’ve said always the more we put on an appropriations bill that has not to do with the subject matter, like disaster ... it loads it up and it impedes progress,” Shelby said. “A lot of it is good and a lot of it is not. But take it all out and try to stay with disaster. I’m up for that.”

Shelby said he and Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., were in agreement on that approach, and he planned to raise the idea with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., at the 11 a.m. GOP conference meeting.

Shelby said after the meeting that lawmakers are working on a bipartisan, bicameral agreement but declined to tell reporters if that would include both disaster aid and funding to address humanitarian needs of migrants at the southern border.

[Federal money hasn’t reached disaster victims]

“We’re working on solutions, a resolution,” he said before rushing into the Appropriations office with Georgia GOP Sen. David Perdue, who is a close ally of President Donald Trump.

Perdue told reporters that lawmakers know what Trump is willing to accept and not accept.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., earlier said on the Senate floor that the chamber ought to go the disaster aid-only route. “I understand that there are some discussions going on in the House, but if we can’t come to an agreement this morning on the other extraneous issues that the House is discussing, we should set those issues to the side,” Schumer said. “We should pass disaster aid as is and return to those unrelated issues at a later date.”

[House passes plus-upped disaster aid package]

But it’s unclear whether President Donald Trump would sign a supplemental bill with appropriations only for disaster aid. Top administration officials have spent the past few weeks fanning out across Capitol Hill to press for border money that could run dry next month, leaving HHS to raid other accounts in order to take care of unaccompanied children, for example.

Senate leaders earlier Thursday urged negotiators to stay at the table on a package of disaster relief and humanitarian assistance for migrants at the southern border, and teed up an afternoon procedural vote as a backup plan.

“I implore our counterparts in the House and my colleagues in this chamber to quickly resolve the last few issues and produce a compromise legislation today,” McConnell said on the floor. “They need to do this today. Because one way or another the Senate is not leaving without taking action.”

Both requests are a long shot considering the House plans to take its last votes before noon and its members are likely to head to the airport directly afterwards to fly back to their districts. Senators are likely to do the same just a few hours later.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House had hoped to vote on a bipartisan disaster aid package before the Memorial recess, but she suggested that is not going to happen now.

“The problem is the president has put in conditions on border funding that are totally unacceptable ... We have not been able to find common ground,” she said.

Pelosi noted that the disaster aid package the House already passed could be sent to the president if the Senate wants to act.

“That’s sitting over in the Senate. They could well just pass it and send it over to the president,” she said.

Senators had been prepping for a procedural vote on an earlier House-passed disaster aid bill around 1:45 p.m. If Senate leaders can get over the 60-vote threshold, provisions acceptable to both sides could be swapped in as a substitute amendment and pass that chamber. There was some talk of the House passing the measure later in the day Thursday though that would likely require unanimous consent, given lawmakers in that chamber are preparing to leave town.

House Republicans didn’t think unanimous consent was possible for a supplemental without the border funding sought by the White House, however. “I think the odds are heavily against it,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., ranking member on the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

Similarly, House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., called a disaster-only supplemental “a nonstarter with the White House.”

Proposals shopped late Wednesday didn’t result in a deal on the border provisions, a House Democratic aide said Thursday. House and Senate leaders have been working overtime to complete negotiations on a package that would speed repairs from 2018 and 2019 storms, along with supplying additional fiscal 2019 funding requested by the White House related to the border surge.

Prospects had already dimmed Wednesday night after late-breaking negotiations didn’t resolve issues related to oversight provisions sought by House Democrats that would control how funds are spent for humanitarian aid through Health and Human Services and border security through Homeland Security.

A Senate Republican aide said Thursday the remaining sticking points were related to immigration policy, not funding levels, and that the disaster-related portions of the talks were basically closed out.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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