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Disaster bill negotiators drop divisive harbor fund provision

Senate and House negotiators hoping for a deal before Memorial Day recess

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., says it would be an “awful conclusion” if Congress fails to pass a disaster relief bill before Memorial Day. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., says it would be an “awful conclusion” if Congress fails to pass a disaster relief bill before Memorial Day. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Updated 10:06 p.m. | Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby said he has pulled his divisive proposed change in the Harbor Maintenance Fund from consideration in the long-stalled disaster and border supplemental package after meeting with President Donald Trump.

The Alabama Republican also said Trump appeared to support the level of border funding in the package, and White House officials indicated they see the emergency legislation becoming law soon.

The developments come as Senate and House negotiators aim to reach a deal this week on the aid package, which would provide additional funds for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico and humanitarian assistance for the southern border.

The harbor provision Shelby sought would have freed up more money to be spent from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund by making the funds exempt from statutory spending caps that limit the amount of money that can be obligated. The trust fund is financed by a tax on imported goods and has a balance exceeding $9 billion.

But the plan ran into opposition from White House officials and Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi, who said it could result in an extra $2 billion a year in spending outside the budget caps. Shelby said Trump agreed to work with him to find another avenue to increase funding for port infrastructure across the country.

Shelby said it is crucial to reach an agreement on the disaster package in the next day in order to pass it before the Memorial Day recess. Democrats and Republicans are reviewing a new House GOP offer, according to aides on both sides of the aisle.

“We had a good meeting,” Shelby said of the late afternoon get-together Monday with Trump, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and acting OMB Director Russell Vought. “We talked about disaster first. Are we going to be able to conclude it? They indicated they thought so. And soon, the sooner the better.”

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VAWA, border money remain hurdles

However, several disputes, including how to handle an extension of lapsed Violence Against Women Act authorities, are holding up a deal with just days left until lawmakers leave town. Senate Republicans prefer a temporary renewal of the current VAWA programs through Sept. 30, 2019, while Democrats want to attach a full reauthorization through fiscal 2024, as passed by the House last month.

“This is crunch time. It will be an awful conclusion to this work period if we leave without passing a relief package,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said on the floor Monday. “That’s why I’m alarmed by rumors that the Republican majority may attach a simple extension of the Violence Against Women Act to the disaster bill, rather than the new reform bill that was passed by a huge bipartisan majority in the House. That’s a recipe for deadlock.”

The House bill, which also contains provisions that would restrict gun ownership and expand rights for transgender individuals, passed April 4 by a vote of 263-158, with 33 Republicans crossing the aisle to support it.

Sen. Cory Gardner called out Schumer for trying to play politics.

“I hope that he is in good faith trying to find a way that we can pass this important piece of legislation,” the Colorado Republican said. “We need to take the politics out of it, and I’m interested in a solution that can bring people together.”

Another unresolved issue in the disaster package involves overseeing how the emergency border aid gets spent.

The package includes a portion of the White House’s $4.5 billion border request, but the exact amount is not yet final. Democrats have been sympathetic to providing humanitarian funding to deal with the surge of unaccompanied minor children and other migrants at the border.

The White House initially requested $3.3 billion for humanitarian assistance, of which $2.88 billion is for the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. On Friday, the Trump administration upped its HHS request by as much as $1.4 billion more, writing that unaccompanied child arrivals this month and last have exceeded the Department of Homeland Security’s “high end scenario from late April.”

Without those funds by next month, the administration says HHS will have to siphon from other priority programs to maintain adequate capacity to shelter more than 23,600 additional migrant children arriving at the southern border.

Shelby said he discussed the border funding in the package with Trump “and he seemed to be for it.” However, one Shelby’s aides said the details are still being worked out.

Other unresolved issues in the talks include:

  • Certain agricultural aid provisions sought by House members. It wasn’t immediately clear what the dispute was over, though the House-passed disaster aid bill would provide $810 million more than a Senate GOP version would for Agriculture Department relief programs to help Midwestern farms and communities recover from recent floods. Of that figure, $310 million for USDA watershed protection was added on the floor in an amendment from Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne, a freshman Democrat who is a top GOP target in 2020.
  • GOP opposition to a provision in the House-passed disaster aid bill that would bar the use of military construction funds to build the border wall championed by Trump.

Puerto Rico funding mostly ironed out

With the caveat that nothing is final until everything is final, negotiators have agreed to provide more funding for Puerto Rico including Community Development Block Grant funds to partially cover matching funds required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for infrastructure repair; provisions to speed up release of billions of existing unspent CDBG funds for Puerto Rico; and provisions to provide oversight of Puerto Rico’s spending of disaster-related funds.

Democrats were seeking $431 million in additional CDBG funds to cover part of FEMA’s cost-share on relief projects, including $304 million for Puerto Rico. An aide said the agreed upon figure is in that ballpark.

The CDBG funding in the package falls short of providing the 100 percent federal cost share for FEMA public assistance for specified disasters, as sought in the House-passed disaster aid bill.

During the past few months, Shelby, House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy and Schumer have put forward proposals ranging in price from $13.45 billion in a Senate GOP-written draft to $19.1 billion in the House-passed bill. Those figures don’t account for border-related assistance appropriators are likely to include.

The Shelby draft initially would have provided $1.06 billion in CDBG funds before agreeing to more money in the ongoing talks. The House bill would provide $2.2 billion.

The underlying bills would provide funding to help states and territories recover from severe weather-related events dating back to 2017, from Hurricane Maria ravaging Puerto Rico to flooding that hit Midwest states hard earlier this year.

The House’s $19.1 billion version, which 34 Republicans voted for earlier this month despite Trump’s opposition, incorporates the most recent disasters federal agencies have had time to process. The price tag grew by about $1.8 billion on the floor, as lawmakers added additional funds for items like Iowa flood control projects to repairs at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, which was gutted by last fall’s Hurricane Michael.

The Air Force has had to raid other programs to finance repairs at the facilities. Last week Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters the lack of funds was curtailing repairs and training needed for F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets formerly housed at Tyndall.

Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.

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