Senate Reaches $19 Billion Deal For Disaster Aid Without Border Wall Funding

May 23, 2019
Originally published on May 23, 2019 8:15 pm

Updated at 5:30 p.m. ET

The Senate approved a $19.1 billion disaster aid package Thursday that includes money for states impacted by flooding, recent hurricanes and tornadoes, as well as money for communities rebuilding after wildfires.

The measure passed overwhelmingly — 85-8.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., announced the deal hours before lawmakers were planning to head home for a weeklong Memorial Day recess. The bipartisan agreement came after months of negotiations.

The bill also includes funding for Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from devastating hurricanes in 2017. The president had previously resisted sending additional money there, a stance that derailed talks on disaster funding in April.

The deal does not include any funding for any border-related programs, something that the White House had sought. Shelby said he spoke with the president about the legislation, and that Trump was supportive of it.

"The president said OK," Shelby said. "I'm sure he wanted the border ... but we took that all out and we're going to try to push that separately."

Shortly before the Senate voted on the plan, the president told reporters at the White House he did not want to hold up the disaster aid to get additional funding for his immigration priorities.

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters that he and Shelby worked on the proposal late into the night and throughout the day on Thursday to include funding for recent disasters that have occurred since they first started negotiating several months ago.

Leahy said he could not explain why Trump decided to accept the agreement, including the controversial money for Puerto Rico, after several months of objections.

"I would have just simply passed this several weeks ago," Leahy said. "I just want it done."

The House of Representatives has already left for its Memorial Day recess, but the legislation could be passed by unanimous voice vote now that the Senate has approved the package.

On Thursday afternoon, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey urged its swift passage.

"House Democrats support clearing it through the House as soon as possible," said committee spokesperson Evan Hollander ahead of the Senate vote. "Chairwoman Lowey is pleased that President Trump and Republicans have agreed to bipartisan, comprehensive disaster relief legislation that will meet urgent needs across the country."

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Across the country, other states are still recovering from their own disasters - flooding in the Midwest, wildfires in California, hurricanes in the Gulf. And after months of waiting, it looks as though they will finally get relief from the federal government. The Senate passed a $19 billion disaster aid package this evening. President Trump has signed off on the plan, and negotiators say House Democrats have, too.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This way our farmers from not only Georgia, Alabama, different places, some in Florida - but if you look at what happened in Nebraska and Iowa and a lot of different places, they got wiped out. They got hurt badly. And I didn't want to hold that up any longer. So the answer is I totally support it. I'd like to see it happen.

KELLY: This after months of argument between Democrats and the president over whether the bill should include additional money for Puerto Rico and how much money should go towards the southern border. NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell is tracking this from Capitol Hill. Hey, Kelsey.


KELLY: So the money in this bill is meant to help communities hit by disaster as recently as this year but as far back as 2017. Why did it take so long?

SNELL: So they have been negotiating parts of this bill for several months now, and part of the problem was that President Trump just did not want to approve more money for Puerto Rico. Even a lot of Republicans that I talked to privately said that they thought they could have had a deal long ago if only the president would have said yes. They were hesitant to sign off on anything only to have the president say, well, no, I'm not going to go along with this. And none of the negotiators have been able to explain to me what's changed between just a few days ago and now. It's important, remember, that the House has already passed more than one version of this.

KELLY: Right.

SNELL: And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week that the Senate would vote on something this week even if the president didn't sign off, and it really took until this afternoon to get that agreement.

KELLY: So a little bit of detail on what exactly is in this bill - who's going to get what kind of funding?

SNELL: Yeah, so this isn't a blank check for emergency management to FEMA. It has specific provisions to speed money to some of the hardest-hit areas. Now, that includes things like $3 billion for farms, places that were hit by flooding in the Midwest, even areas in the South. There's also new hemp crop insurance starting in 2020, which may not seem like it's related to a disaster (laughter).


SNELL: But...


SNELL: But it is...

KELLY: Sell me on this.

SNELL: No, but it is a big priority for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. There's also $20 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention so that they can assess the environmental hazards related to these disasters. And that's just a small part of it.

KELLY: As we mentioned, this is including money for Puerto Rico over the president's objections. How much?

SNELL: Yeah. Essentially it is what Democrats have been asking for, what they started with at the beginning of weeks of - or months of negotiations. There's about $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico and about $300 million for a program called Community Development Block Grants. That's essentially rebuilding money for low-income communities in Puerto Rico.

KELLY: And what about the question of money for the border? We know Republicans wanted that money, wanted security money. Democrats wanted humanitarian aid. How did that shake out?

SNELL: Yeah, so that was one of the things that was really holding this up towards the end. It was something they were trying to work out between the House and the Senate, but it wound up just being too controversial, and they couldn't get an agreement. They basically couldn't agree on how much or what humanitarian aid would even cover. But I'm told by Senator Richard Shelby, who is the Republican in charge of Appropriations here in the Senate, that they're going to try to do it in some other bill.

KELLY: Speaking of other bills, before I let you go, what does all this mean for the budget talks that were supposed to be happening this week?

SNELL: Well, so far - no progress that we're aware of. They're still trying to get some agreement to lift these big cuts that are supposed to go into effect at the end of September. The goal is to make sure that those cuts never happen and they don't happen for two years. But there's a lot of disagreement on domestic spending in particular, which is a major priority for Democrats.

KELLY: Thank you, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR's Kelsey Snell on Capitol Hill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.