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Disaster aid in limbo as Congress nears Memorial Day break

Published: Monday, May 20, 2019 @ 8:41 AM

With members of the House and Senate leaving town for a ten day break at the end of this week, the future of billions of dollars in disaster relief for victims of hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, tornadoes, and more remains in limbo in the halls of Congress, as the Senate struggles to finalize a deal, with opposition by President Donald Trump to extra aid for Puerto Rico one of the stumbling blocks.

"Now it’s time for Congress to pass the disaster relief bill," Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) tweeted on Sunday. "Our Panhandle communities have waited long enough," he said, referring to the extreme damage caused by Hurricane Michael last year.

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But while the House has passed two different relief bills - a $14 billion package in January, and a $19 billion plan earlier this month - the Senate has been unable to come to an agreement, with money for Puerto Rico, and possible extra money to deal with the surge of immigrants along the southern border still in the mix.

"What is happening at the border is tragic, and we hope to address some of that in the supplemental that is coming, the disaster supplemental, to provide some of the resources that are needed there," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week.

But so far, that broader deal - which would likely push the price tag of the bill over $20 billion - has not come together.

Meanwhile, the Trump Administration is still holding back $16 billion in already approved disaster aid for areas hit by hurricanes in 2017, including $4 billion for Texas, and $8.2 billion for Puerto Rico.

Last week, the feds released $1.4 billion in already approved disaster funding for states hit by disasters in 2018 - but left the much larger amount of 2017 money still on the shelf, even though officials have promised for months that it was about to be released.

The 2018 money included $448 million for Florida, and nearly $35 million for Georgia to deal with Hurricane Michael damage - but much larger sums of aid, including money to rebuild Tyndall Air Force Base - are caught up in the disaster bill before Congress.

And one of the main reasons that disaster bill has been stuck in the Senate since January is President Trump's opposition to extra aid for Puerto Rico.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to have a vote on disaster aid before the Senate leaves town for Memorial Day.

"I'm not going to be sending members of either party home to these storm and flood ravaged states without at least some action," McConnell said.

If key Senators can't reach an agreement, the latest $19.1 billion House-passed bill is ready for action on the Senate calendar.

The clock is ticking on any deal - the House is scheduled to leave town by Thursday afternoon.

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