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Disaster aid deal nears as White House presses border funds

‘We’re going to have a vote next week,’ Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., are two key players in how the chamber will deal with fiscal year 2020 spending. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., are two key players in how the chamber will deal with fiscal year 2020 spending. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The monthslong Senate effort to draft a bipartisan disaster aid bill could come to a close within the next week, after members of both parties said Tuesday talks have taken a turn for the better.

“We’re going to have a vote next week,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Tuesday after meeting with GOP colleagues for lunch. “I hope it’s a vote on a deal that has been reached with both sides of the aisle and the White House.”

The chief holdup on a disaster bill has been on how to ensure aid to Puerto Rico, delayed since last year, finally gets to the island territory to help rebuild after 2017′s Hurricane Maria, as well as how to put appropriate financial controls on a new batch of funds.

The White House and Senate Republicans have been less willing to loosen the purse strings for Puerto Rico, charging island officials with mismanagement of prior appropriations. But they’ve been moving towards the Democrats’ position in the interest of moving the broader aid package to help victims of disasters ranging from California wildfires to tornadoes in the Southeast.

“There is some good news,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “I’m encouraged that Republicans have moved in our direction when it comes to Puerto Rico. I hope we can find agreement and put this totally unnecessary political fight behind us and finally deliver relief to disaster stricken Americans — wherever they may be.”

Prospects for a deal “have improved dramatically,” added Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala. “The next step is to try to wrap it up. … The week before a recess is generally a good time.” Senators are scheduled to head home on May 24 for the weeklong Memorial Day recess.

Disagreements about aid to Puerto Rico have mostly been resolved, Shelby said. “I wouldn’t say it’s not an issue, but we’ve made a lot of progress there,” he said.

Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said negotiators are getting a lot closer to a final agreement and that he’d “like to see it done in the next few days.”

Lawmakers have been working for months to determine how much spending should go to assist states damaged by severe weather during 2018 and the first few months of 2019, with various measures proposing between $13.45 billion and $19.1 billion.

“We’re going back and forth, Senator Shelby and I, we have been negotiating back and forth and in fact Senator Shelby and I did a lot of that just this last weekend,” Leahy said.

Senate Democrats are working on a counteroffer to give to Shelby but it is not clear whether that offer will be ready today, a person familiar with the negotiations said.

Border complications

The source said Democrats found last week’s offer from Republicans close to being acceptable, but the talks have since been complicated by Vice President Mike Pence’s insistence that a $4.5 billion border-related supplemental requested by the White House be added to the package. Democrats are evaluating the request to determine what they can or cannot accept.

The White House supplemental request is intended to address the flow of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. White House officials were set to visit the Capitol Tuesday to discuss broader immigration policy changes with Democratic lawmakers.

The meeting will include acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, with acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan possibly in attendance. Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, was also seen at the Capitol Tuesday though it wasn’t clear if he would be at the meeting.

“There’s half a dozen of us to meet with the administration to talk about this,” said Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Jon Tester.

It wasn’t clear whether the border supplemental request would come up at the meeting with White House officials Tuesday, which a Democratic aide said would be the third in a series of meetings to discuss immigration policy. But Tester, D-Mont., said the Trump border proposal could be a key remaining issue in the disaster aid talks.

“They may attach it to that,” he said. “I think it could be squared with Democrats but there’s going to have to be some serious work done on it. I think there’s a lot of stuff in that that is not emergency at all, it’s base budget stuff that they should take care of in the base budget.”

It’s possible, for example, that there could be bipartisan support for extra money flowing to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, for which the administration requested $2.9 billion out of the $4.5 billion it wants in extra border spending overall.

The Office of Management and Budget said the Department of Health and Human Services could run out of money as soon as next month to house and care for migrant children crossing the border without parents or guardians, according to a letter outlining the request from acting OMB chief Russell Vought.

The HHS funding could garner more bipartisan support than some $342 million Immigration and Customs Enforcement wants to detain migrants and their families, for instance, which Democrats charge would simply backfill detention bed capacity they specifically sought to hold down in the fiscal 2019 spending deal. Another $377 million would fund Defense Department logistical support for Border Patrol operations, another concerning expenditure for Democrats.

Shelby put the odds of money being added to the disaster aid package to address the flow of migrants over the Mexican border at roughly 50-50. “I guess it’s straight up, there’s no leaning,” he said.

Shelby added that he spoke with Pence as well as McConnell and Schumer Tuesday about the broader disaster aid bill.

“The Vice President is always courteous and he listened to me, he listened to the leader. But still it’s the president who will make those decisions,” Shelby said. “We hope he will get on board because we need to move this bill, we needed to move it months ago, but we need to move it now.”

Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.