Massive Disaster-Relief Package Approved by Senate

A car is submerged in a current of floodwater on Sept. 4, 2017, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey near the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Ending a months-long battle over funding for states ravaged by record-breaking storms and devastating floods and wildfires, the Senate voted 85-8 Thursday to approve a $19.1 billion disaster-relief package.

With its passage complete in the Senate, the bill is next headed for the House where lawmakers will likely pass the package by a voice vote. President Donald Trump is expected to sign off on the legislation Friday.

The bill took a back seat these past several months to wrangling on Capitol Hill and a stalemate over border-wall funding. Once officially enforced, the bill will give places like Puerto Rico, Florida, California, Texas, North Carolina and Nebraska funding to repair widespread damage from intense storms and other disasters.

Puerto Rico sustained approximately $90 billion in damage from Hurricane Mara, while Florida saw an estimated $50 billion in damages. Texas and Louisiana combined saw $125 billion in damages from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. California was hit with $3 billion in clean-up costs alone following last year’s wildfires.

The bill passed Thursday earmarks $605 million for food assistance in Puerto Rico, plus $304 million for FEMA housing and other related assistance. Another $3 billion dollars meanwhile will go toward rebuilding military bases that were upended in North Carolina, Nebraska and Florida, with an addition $3 billion allotted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for waterway repair.

The package also features $2.4 billion in community block grant funding and just over $1.6 billion for damaged highways. The National Park Service will see an influx of $128 million to repair damaged public lands.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who has represented Vermont for 45 years, called Thursday a “good day for the U.S. Congress, for the American people and the nation.”

“I said from the beginning, a position I’ve taken all my decades here in the Senate; any disaster bill that passes this chamber cannot pick and choose which American citizens to help in their time of need,” he said. “The American community bands together to support each other when disaster strike, regardless of where we’re from, what our beliefs are, or what our politics are. It’s the role of Congress to make sure that’s done.”

The bill does not include $4.5 billion that Republicans sought for immigration-related costs, like the border wall or humanitarian assistance needed to address an abundance of asylum seekers fleeing violence and political unrest in Central America and arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border daily. 

Confidence that the president will sign the bill Friday is high among most lawmakers.  Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who also chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Thursday afternoon he expects the administration will easily sign off on the disaster package while pushing a separate bill for immigration funding.

Even though the package does not contain the immigration funding he once sought so fervently, Trump confirmed he would be willing to enact the legislation during an event for farmers and ranchers at the White House on Thursday afternoon. 

Though the House has gone on recess for Memorial Day, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey said in a statement that House Democrats would pass the bill “as soon as possible.” That could be accomplished through a unanimous voice vote Friday afternoon. 

Evan Hollander, a committee spokesman, said the chairwoman was pleased “President Trump and Republicans have agreed to bipartisan, comprehensive disaster relief legislation that will meet the urgent needs of this country.” 

While Democratic lawmakers appeared assured of the package’s outcome, the battle to pass the disaster bill lasted a contentious five months and Democratic lawmakers have been burned by the president’s about-face decision making before. 

Starting last December, the president shut down the federal government for 35 days – the longest lapse in U.S. history – after lawmakers refused to acquiesce to his demands for border wall funding. 

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