Congress

Disaster aid bill could grow, block diversion of funds to wall

Measure unlikely to go far in Senate

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., (left), is pushing for a disaster aid package. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., opposes an amendment Democrats are preparing that he describes as an “exercise in futility. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House is scheduled to take up a $12.1 billion disaster aid package Wednesday that would reopen the nine closed Cabinet agencies for three weeks and, if approved during floor debate, prevent President Donald Trump from tapping the bill’s emergency funds for building a border wall.

The underlying bill would direct aid to victims of recent calamities such as hurricanes that hit Florida and the Carolinas, wildfires that ravaged California and typhoons that struck island territories in the Pacific, House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., told the Rules Committee on Tuesday.

It would also provide funds for programs left out of an earlier GOP-drafted version in the waning days of the 115th Congress, such as nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico, still rebuilding from 2017’s Hurricane Maria, that is set to dry up in March.

The measure’s price tag could still swell on the floor, as the Rules panel made in order a bipartisan amendment to add $1.9 billion in aid to agricultural producers who lost crops and livestock as a result of 2018 disasters.

The effort was spearheaded by Georgia Reps. Sanford D. Bishop Jr., the top Democrat on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, and Austin Scott, a Republican. They’ve cited a University of Georgia estimate of $2.5 billion in losses in their state alone from Hurricane Michael. Other states affected by hurricanes and wildfires would also be eligible.

Despite what is expected to be broad bipartisan support for the underlying disaster aid, the measure is unlikely to go far in the Senate. Democrats plan to attach a continuing resolution that would provide temporary appropriations through Feb. 8, using a “self-executing” rule that would combine the CR with the disaster aid legislation upon adoption of the rule itself.

The Rules panel approved the rule by a party-line vote of 8-4 Tuesday.

Most Republicans in the Senate, as well as Trump, oppose reopening the government without first securing some concessions on border wall funding — the heart of the stalemate that has led to the longest government shutdown in history.

But at least one top Senate Republican, Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, backs a three-week CR, as the House is taking up Wednesday. He continues to press the issue with Trump despite the president’s rejection of the idea.

“We’ll see if more people ask him. I’ve never been more encouraged by the number of senators who believe that if we had three weeks or something like that, we could find a solution,” Graham said Tuesday. “I’m trying to convince the president there’s people here you can work with. They need to come forward and say, ‘Yes, I’m willing to work with you, but we need to open up the government.’”

House Democrats are readying a floor amendment Wednesday to stoke the divide further, by prohibiting funds made available for the Army Corps of Engineers or Department of Homeland Security in the disaster aid bill from being “obligated or expended to plan, develop, or construct a new physical barrier along the Southwest border.”

Trump has threatened an emergency order, though he’s since backed away from the idea, that would allow him to tap existing funds in order to finance his wall project. The amendment vote, proposed by House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., could drive a wedge between Republicans, some of whom have vocally opposed diverting disaster aid funds intended for their districts to the southwest border instead.

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Rules Committee Republicans decried what they argued was a political exercise that undermines bipartisan support for disaster assistance.

“This is going to be an exercise in futility, and unfortunately, it’s going to be on a disaster bill,” said ranking member Tom Cole, R-Okla.

Other amendments up for House floor votes under the rule include:

  • Increased funding for the U.S. Forest Service by $10 million to help recover from the 2018 fires and prepare for the next fire season, sponsored by Reps. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., and Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif.
  • Making those who applied for Small Business Administration disaster loans eligible for other disaster grant funding, offered by Louisiana Reps. Cedric L. Richmond, a Democrat, and Republican Garret Graves. $25 million for the Martín Peña Channel ecosystem restoration in Puerto Rico, offered by Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez, D-N.Y.
  • Clarifying language sponsored by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., that would specify that winegrape growers whose crops were tainted by smoke from a 2018 wildfire are eligible for assistance even if grape damage is discovered after removal from the vine.

Doug Sword contributed to this report. 

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