Bipartisan congressional negotiators said Tuesday that they are nearing a deal on a broad disaster aid bill for multiple U.S. states that would increase spending for Puerto Rico despite objections from President Trump.
No final deal had been reached on the $17 billion package, and lawmakers and aides from both parties cautioned that details remained to be resolved. Support from the White House also was not assured.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that a vote would take place next week, and lawmakers on both sides said a resolution was within reach after a frustrating, months-long standoff.
“We’re going to vote next week. I tell you from my point of view, I’ve had it,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). “I don’t mind helping Puerto Rico more, it’s got to be reasonable, but enough with the drama on disaster aid. I think you’re going to see a jailbreak here.”
Details of the emerging package remained unclear, but it was expected to contain about $300 million in additional community block grant funds for Puerto Rico on top of $600 million for the island’s food stamp program approved by the White House. Puerto Rico was also expected to get faster access to billions more in Community Development Block Grant money appropriated by Congress, as long as proper controls were in place and the island could certify the need for the money.
Concluding negotiations centered on some other issues, including whether a final deal would incorporate portions of the Trump administration’s recent $4.5 billion emergency spending request for the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats sounded open to including some elements of the border request, specifically those focused on humanitarian aid to address the high numbers of Central American families and minors seeking entry into the United States.
Overall, the legislation would spread billions of dollars nationwide through myriad federal agencies and programs. Catastrophes such as the California wildfires, Midwestern flooding, and tornadoes and hurricanes in the South would be addressed.
Lawmakers lamented their inability to reach agreement on an aid package faster, especially since disaster assistance is normally a bipartisan priority. Trump’s opposition to increased spending for Puerto Rico became a complicating factor early on, but other conflicts also erupted between the administration and Congress as lawmakers tried to maneuver toward a deal. Extraneous items sprang up, including a provision favoring hemp farmers that was pushed by McConnell, and language sought by Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) — but opposed by the White House — related to a harbor maintenance fund.
“I hope the ice is beginning to break, and that it’s fully dawned on everyone that it’s not within the tradition of the Senate to be playing political games with disaster relief,” McConnell said.
He said that even if no final deal is reached by next week, the Senate will vote on a disaster bill because he does not want senators to have to return home for their Memorial Day recess without having voted to send relief to their constituents.
Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) welcomed progress in the talks even while blaming Republicans for the holdup.
“Now their members in states that really need the help are saying to Mitch McConnell, ‘Get something done!’ ” Schumer said. “So I think the fact that they realized that they were not going to be able to get a good bill done without treating Puerto Rico fairly has awakened them to the fact that they have to do the right thing, and that’s why we’re closer today than we were.”
As time has passed, lawmakers have faced increasingly urgent pleas from constituents.
Georgia suffered an estimated $2 billion in crop losses from Hurricane Michael last fall, including about $500 million in losses to the cotton, vegetable and pecan industries, according to a spokesman for Gov. Brian Kemp (R).
Bill Brim, a peanut and cotton farmer in Tifton, Ga., said he has heard of at least two suicides by farmers who were hit hard by the storm, adding that he knows about six or seven other farmers who have gone bankrupt. Because Hurricane Michael wiped out their crops, farmers were unable to pay back their bank loans, which made it impossible for them to get extended credit.
“I’m surprised we haven’t had more suicides than we have had. You’re playing politics with people’s lives,” Brim said. “And what do I tell them? All of our farmers hurt, and hurt really, really bad. It’s an emotional thing to talk about.”
In Mexico Beach, Fla., no work has begun on several key buildings that were destroyed by the hurricane, including facilities for the police and fire departments; the pier; the civic center; and other key infrastructure, said Mayor Al Cathey. The police and fire departments have been operating out of temporary mobile homes set up in the local park.
The town has an estimated $60 million bill to clean up its debris, which it cannot come close to covering with its annual $3.5 million budget.
“We’re just sitting here in a pot, boiling over, and nothing’s happening,” Cathey said. “We’ve been suppressed in our debris, our devastation. We’re exhausted.”
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.