Washington Insider -- Friday

Disaster Relief Caught in Controversy


Progressive Farmer/DTN



Washington Insider: Disaster Relief Caught in Controversy


Disaster relief is typically non-political since both parties face damages when disasters strike. However, The Hill is reporting this week that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is being squeezed between President Trump and anxious members of his Republican conference on a disaster relief bill that has stalled over the charged issue of assistance for Puerto Rico.


The president spent part of a meeting last week with Senate Republicans railing against what he sees as Puerto Rico's push for more than its fair share of disaster relief money and made it clear to GOP leaders that he opposes sending more money to the storm-ravaged island. He accused Puerto Rico of "sucking needed resources away from other states."


Democrats, however, won't let other Republican-drafted disaster relief bills pass without extra money for Puerto Rico and know they have leverage because some of the states in most dire need of relief Georgia, Iowa, Florida and Nebraska have all-Republican Senate delegations.


One GOP-backed relief bill includes more than $3 billion for crop losses in these agriculture-heavy states and includes special language to help pecan growers in Georgia who are pleading for immediate federal help.


Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he pressed McConnell directly to get the bill passed as soon as possible and warned if help doesn't get to Georgia in 10 days, "some of the farmers are going to lose their farms or go into serious debt because the banks can't wait on them any longer to pay off their debts."


McConnell is in a tough spot, The Hill says. The most likely way to get disaster relief to Georgia and other states this month would be to cut a deal with Democrats to increase assistance for Puerto Rico. But doing so would be seen as undercutting Trump. McConnell, who faces reelection in 2020, has one of the lowest home-state approval ratings of any senator and needs the president's support.


A Republican member of the Senate Appropriations Committee said colleagues from states that have suffered devastating crop losses are getting nervous as the fight over Puerto Rico threatens to drag out for weeks.


"There's a lot of money in the disaster relief budget right now but the Georgia, Nebraska and Iowa folks are extremely concerned," said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity.


McConnell said earlier this week that he will continue to negotiate because "no action is not an option."


A senior Republican aide told The Hill that the pressure is on Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to explain why Democrats are holding up a bill that Trump has said he would sign into law. The aide noted it includes $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico. Democrats, however, argue that's grossly inadequate.


"We understand the devastation in Puerto Rico and there are no excuses left. It's just to say we're not going to help them, we'll help other victims," said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill.


"Make no mistake we reached this impasse because the president has said for himself he opposes help for Puerto Rico. And Republicans follow along," Schumer said on the Senate floor.


He and Sen. Patrick Leahy., D-Vt., the top-ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, offered an amendment Tuesday that would have increased funding for Midwestern farm states as well as for Puerto Rico.


Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who is centrally involved in the talks, initially told reporters that he thought bolstering funds for damage caused by tornadoes in the Southeast and flooding in the Midwest would be the key to getting a deal. But White House officials later told him that the proposal would not fly because the president is staunchly opposed to more money for Puerto Rico.


He said the negotiations are now "stalled" and that the president "hasn't yet" agreed to any more money for Puerto Rico.


Republicans warn that Democrats running for president will pay a political price if they continue to support the Democratic blockade of the GOP's disaster relief bill because Iowa, the nation's first caucus state in 2020, would be a major beneficiary...


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