WASHINGTON — The Senate is moving forward on a disaster aid package this week, despite concerns from some lawmakers that it would “bail out”' the struggling federal flood insurance program and doesn’t include enough money to help states recover from devastating hurricanes.
The Senate agreed Monday to take up a $36.5 billion bill with a final vote possibly as early as Tuesday. If approved, it would be the second installment of disaster aid for states and U.S. territories hard hard hit by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and wildfires in the West. And this may not be the last disaster relief bill Congress takes up this year.
Lawmakers approved a $15.25 billion hurricane relief package in September in the days after Hurricane Harvey left much of Houston underwater and as Hurricane Irma was raging through the Caribbean on its way to Florida.
“The Senate remains committed to doing its part to support the ongoing hurricane relief efforts," Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Monday. “Victims of these hurricanes continue to count on our support."
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, also urged bipartisan support for the disaster aid legislation, calling it the “next step to the road to recovery."
“Millions of Americans all over the country, the Americans in Puerto Rico, the Americans in the Virgin Islands, they need us to work together to help lift them up,'' Leahy said on the Senate floor Monday. “This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. This is an American issue. This is who we are as a country — we hold together."
The House approved a $36.5 billion aid package earlier this month to help states and U.S. territories recover in the wake of devastating hurricanes and wildfires. It included $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund and $576.5 million to help with recovery efforts from wildfires in some Western states.
"Now, it's our turn,'' McConnell said. “These resources will ensure that FEMA and the rest of the administration have the ability to continue their crucial support to help those impacted by devastating storms."
The House bill also included $16 billion to relieve some of the debts for the National Flood Insurance Program. Some conservatives in the House voted against the measure, complaining about what they called a “bailout’’ for the financially strapped NFIP.
It faced similar criticism in the Senate.
“I think it causes trouble period if you load a bill up bailing out anything — banks, bailing out flood insurance programs … That’s not just disaster relief," Sen. Richard Shelby, a top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said last week. “I have real problems with that kind of stuff.''
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, whose state was hard hit by Harvey, raised concerns last week that $18 billion the Lone Star State's governor said Texas needs was not included in the disaster bill.
“In talking to a number of my colleagues from Florida, some from out West where the wildfires are creating a lot of devastation, I think there’s some interest in seeing whether the Senate should add to what the House has done," Cornyn said.
Cornyn told Texas reporters last Thursday that President Trump has assured him those concerns will be addressed in another measure later this year.
It's not clear yet whether other funding will be added to the Senate bill. Conservative groups, including Heritage Action, have urged lawmakers to vote against the measure because it does not force broader changes in the flood program and does not cut other spending to offset the costs.
Florida lawmakers have also been pushing for more aid to help the state’s devastated citrus industry. The funding was not included in the House version of the bill either.
Florida Sens. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Republican, unsuccessfully attempted Monday to add an amendment to provide $3 billion aid for citrus growers and Florida agriculture in the Senate package.
“We’ve been pushing so hard to get our citrus growers some help,’’ Nelson said on the Senate floor.
McConnell rejected the effort, calling the relief effort a multi-stage process and promising more aid is coming. “There will be additional rounds,’’ he said.
Nelson said he placed a hold on Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget for assurance.
Rubio said he also hopes the aid is included in another package next month.
“But we all know how this place works,’’ he said Monday. “I just don’t know why we wouldn’t do it now.’’
Rubio said last week he's also concerned that some devastated areas, including Puerto Rico, need more help now.
He said the bill does not do enough to allow the island "to access the funds quickly and continue basic government operations."
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said he's focused on efforts outside the federal government, including working with groups in California to help Puerto Rico rebuild its electric grid.
Much of the power on the island has not been restored and many residents still don’t have safe drinking water after Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Meanwhile, he said, Congress should help.
“I think it’s important that we be responsive from here," said Carper, adding that the Bible urges helping your neighbors. “They are our neighbors. They’re also Americans.''
The administration and federal emergency management officials have come under fire for what some have called their slow response to recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.
Trump, who met last Thursday with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, rated the administration’s response a 10.
“I think we've done a really great job," Trump said.
Rosselló praised Trump for quickly declaring an emergency and deploying federal emergency workers to the island.
“We recognize that a lot of business has been done, but a lot still has to be done,” he said.
Leahy, who also met with Rosselló last week, criticized Trump on Monday for giving his administration a 10 “like this was a game show.’’
Leahy rattled off problems still plaguing the island. "This is not reality," he said. “This is the hard part of governing."
Contributing: Ledyard King, USA TODAY
Puerto Rico and Caribbean islands struggle after Hurricane Maria