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Firefighter grants pass Senate after amendment agreement

Schumer calls measure a ‘much-needed lifeline’ that will fund lifesaving equipment, personnel

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer is seen at a news conference after the 
Senate luncheons in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer is seen at a news conference after the Senate luncheons in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate passed a bipartisan bill Thursday to reauthorize federal grant programs for local fire departments after reaching agreement earlier this week to allow amendment votes.

The measure, passed 95-2, would reauthorize the two grant programs, Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants and Assistance to Firefighters Grants, through fiscal 2030 but with flat funding.

The bill would also reauthorize the U.S. Fire Administration, which conducts research and provides public education and training, through the same time period. The measure would provide a $20 million increase for each of the next seven years that would bring the agency’s total budget authorization up to $95 million per year.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer called the bill a “much-needed lifeline” that will provide firefighters with funds for lifesaving equipment and personnel. The grants are especially helpful in smaller, more rural areas where localities rely on volunteer firefighters and don’t have enough funds to purchase equipment, the New York Democrat said in a floor speech.

Despite broad bipartisan support, the Senate spent nearly two weeks of floor time — with a break for the Easter-Passover recess — debating the legislation.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that has jurisdiction over the bill, was opposed to quick passage. He wanted amendments on the floor after Democrats blocked his proposals from getting an up-or-down vote in the March committee markup, which he walked out of in protest.

Ultimately, Senate leaders reached agreement to allow votes on six amendments to the bill. Schumer praised the amendment process as an example of “how the Senate should work” — even though all six were all rejected in a series of votes held Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

“We worked with our Republican colleagues and the ranking member of the relevant committees to allow Republican amendments,” he said. “And in turn, our Republican colleagues are supporting us moving forward on this important legislation. It’s a good thing and I hope this model continues.”

Paul voted against the bill after his amendment was rejected, 45-54. It would have prohibited fire departments that dismissed employees who refused to get COVID-19 vaccines from receiving funds unless they offered to reinstate those employees with back pay.

“It seems bizarre and contradictory to provide financial support to increase fire department staffing when decisions were made to terminate trained and effective firefighters for no good reason,” Paul said in a floor speech ahead of the vote on his amendment. “Firefighters tend to be young and fit, the very people who had the least to worry about COVID-19.”

Paul was also pushing for an amendment, offered by Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., to offset the U.S. Fire Administration budget increase with unspent pandemic aid funds. It was rejected, 47-49.

Competing amendments that would have provided fire departments with the ability to fund construction of fire stations, training or health facilities were also rejected.

An amendment from Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, that would have allowed the reauthorized grant funds to be used for that purpose went down 42-56, while one from Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to set up a new grant program for that purpose was rejected, 46-51.

Daniel Hillburn and Tia Yang contributed to this report.

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