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House passes plus-upped disaster aid package

Relief for Puerto Rico after deadly hurricanes is among the issues hanging up a broader disaster aid package in Congress. (Angel Valentin/Getty Images)
Relief for Puerto Rico after deadly hurricanes is among the issues hanging up a broader disaster aid package in Congress. (Angel Valentin/Getty Images)

The House passed a $19.1 billion disaster aid package to help victims of recent storms and flooding rebuild, with the price tag growing by about $1.8 billion on the floor through amendments to add funds for repairing damaged military facilities, highways, levees, dams and more.

The vote was 257-150, with 34 Republicans crossing the aisle to support the bill drafted by the Democratic majority. President Donald Trump and GOP leaders tried to tamp down defections on the bill, which they oppose because it would pump more money into Puerto Rico, which hasn’t yet been able to spend much of the $20 billion previously appropriated after 2017′s Hurricane Maria.

Republicans are focused on the Senate, where bipartisan negotiations are ongoing on a separate aid package. The White House and Republicans want to impose more financial controls on Puerto Rico’s management of funds run through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program.

“I’ve spoken to the president, I’ve spoken to the leader on the Senate side, I believe we can solve this all next week,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said during floor debate Friday. “I want to you know where my heart is: we will be back here next week, we will make law, and we will solve this.”

But the Senate package is stuck over a variety of unrelated issues, including a Trump request for $4.5 billion in border-related resources and a push by Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby to free up some $2 billion in year in harbor maintenance funds that currently have to compete with other discretionary programs. House Republicans from disaster-afflicted areas faced immense pressure back home to support the House Democrats’ bill, which is currently the only moving vehicle to deliver long-delayed relief.

And there’s significant bipartisan concern with the slow pace at which HUD has been parceling out the block grant funding. House Democrats included language in the underlying bill passed Friday that would require HUD to publish rules for disbursal of funds appropriated in February 2018 (PL 115-123), for Puerto Rico and other affected areas within 90 days of enactment. A bipartisan amendment from Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Texas, to shorten that to 14 days was adopted on a 393-20 vote.

Among those supporting the bill in the House was Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla., who successfully offered an amendment to add $685 million for fixing military facilities battered in Hurricane Michael last October, including Tyndall Air Force Base. Trump visited Tyndall earlier this week as well as other storm-ravaged parts of the Florida Panhandle, where he pledged to expedite relief and got in a few digs at the Democrats who he blamed for holding up the disaster supplemental.

“House Republicans should not vote for the BAD DEMOCRAT Disaster Supplemental Bill which hurts our States, Farmers & Border Security,” Trump tweeted around 7 p.m. Thursday. He repeated the message at 11:58 p.m. with an addition: “Republicans must stick together!”

Bipartisan support

Before Trump’s tweets, bipartisan momentum was building for moving aid funds to residents and military bases struggling to clean up the mess from brutal storms in 2018 and 2019. And Friday’s floor action demonstrated that lawmakers of both parties are feeling the sting of a lack of movement on a disaster bill. Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., said on the floor that while the bill under consideration didn’t address everything Republicans or the president wanted, “Nebraskans need relief. This bill gets us closer to that.”

Dunn’s amendment was adopted by voice vote, as was much of the spending added Friday that few lawmakers wanted to oppose publicly. Dunn was one of several Republicans to cosponsor a bipartisan amendment from Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., to add another $270 million for Air Force facility repairs, including Tyndall and Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.

The Air Force has been siphoning funds from other bases around the country to backfill the relief effort at disaster-stricken facilities, so the Cunningham amendment drew GOP cosponsors such as Michael R. Turner of Ohio, Rob Bishop of Utah and Don Young of Alaska.

A big haul came in the form of two amendments offered by Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, including $500 million for emergency highway repairs and $310 million to repair damaged flood control projects, both adopted by voice vote. Smaller efforts were also successful, including an amendment to add $13 million for nutrition assistance to American Samoa, that was adopted by voice vote.

Republicans demanded recorded votes on others, including an amendment from Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., to add $5 million to improve weather forecasting capabilities at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including a new “Earth Prediction Innovation Center” where work will partly be done at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. That vote was 247-165.

Another amendment, to add $8.8 million for EPA wastewater treatment grants on the Typhoon Yutu-damaged Northern Mariana Islands, was adopted on a 268-143 vote.

Of the 24 members who did not vote on the final bill, three are Democrats running for the presidential nomination: Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Tim Ryan of Ohio and Eric Swalwell of California.

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