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Congress approves another round of hurricane, wildfire funding

The measure drew some pushback from Texans in Congress, who wanted to see more money for communities upended by Hurricane Harvey.

By Ed O'Keefe, The Washington Post
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive in Corpus Christi on Air Force One to survey damage from Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 29, 2017.

Congress gave final approval on Tuesday to a $36.5 billion emergency spending plan to pay for ongoing relief from recent natural disasters — but lawmakers from storm-ravaged states are expecting more money the next time the White House asks for more emergency funding.

The spending deal includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to natural disasters stretching from the storm-scarred beaches of Puerto Rico to the scorched vineyards of Northern California. There’s also a $16 billion increase in the National Flood Insurance Program’s borrowing limit; $576.5 million to address wildfires in the West; and $1.2 billion for nutrition assistance programs that will provide low-income Puerto Rican residents relief after Hurricane Maria slammed the island.

Relief for Puerto Rico dominated the latest round of emergency funding, with more than 80 percent of the island still without power more than a month after the storm and growing concerns that a failure to restore power and provide basic services to residents could cause a mass exodus to the mainland United States.

The bill now goes to President Trump for his signature.

Several senators in both parties slowed consideration of the legislation in recent days, saying they expected more relief for their states or significant reforms to the flood insurance program and other shipping and labor laws before final approval. None of those concerns derailed the bill and the White House has assured lawmakers they will address their concerns in the next round of emergency funding they expect to request next month.

U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Bill Nelson, D-Florida, are clamoring for money to help Florida’s distressed citrus industry after Hurricane Irma battered the state. The state’s agricultural industry sustained more than $2.5 billion in damages, including more than $760 million for the citrus industry alone, according to Nelson’s office.

“It’s not an industry that benefits from anything extraordinary from the government. They literally are on the verge of going away unless we help them sooner rather than later,” Rubio warned on Monday.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, both Texas Republicans, were pushing for more money to help communities upended by Hurricane Harvey, and they threatened to hold up Tuesday’s vote. But last week, they relented when given assurances by the Trump administration that Texas’s concerns would be better addressed in the next funding request. Despite those assurances, Cornyn is blocking a vote to confirm the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget as leverage.

“Promises were made from OMB to fully support Texans as they continue to recover from Hurricane Harvey, and he’s going to make sure those promises are kept,” a Cornyn spokeswoman said.

A handful of Republicans withheld their support because the bill does not offset the emergency spending with cuts elsewhere in the federal budget or because the bill failed to revamp the NFIP — a longtime pursuit of conservatives.

“Instead of helping the victims of these disasters through responsible aid paired with lasting reform, Congress has rushed to its favorite solution: Billions in new spending, with little accountability or oversight,” U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said in a Senate floor speech Monday evening as he announced his opposition.

Other senators, including U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, voted against the measure because it failed to lift Jones Act requirements that any ship carrying relief supplies to Puerto Rico be American built, owned, flagged and crewed.

Democrats, meanwhile, while supporting the legislation, used the vote as an opportunity to knock Trump’s recent proclamations that his administration is perfectly handling storm relief missions, especially in Puerto Rico.

“The Administration was slow to respond to the disaster, and to claim that they get a ‘10 out of 10’ for their response is to ignore the facts,” U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said Monday as debate continued on the legislation. “This is not a reality TV show where the participant with the highest score advances to the next round. These are people’s lives. These are people’s homes. This is the hard part of governing. This is where we roll up our sleeves and dig in for the long haul.”

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