Senate presses ahead on $36.5B disaster relief package

WASHINGTON (AP) — A senior Senate Democrat said there’s no time to waste as the Senate pressed ahead Monday on a $36.5 billion hurricane relief package that would give Puerto Rico a much-needed infusion of cash.

The measure also would replenish rapidly dwindling emergency disaster accounts and provide $16 billion to permit the financially troubled federal flood insurance program to pay an influx of Harvey-related claims.

But the bill rejects requests from the powerful Texas and Florida congressional delegations for additional money to rebuild after hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

The measure was certain to sail through Monday’s procedural vote and a final vote was expected no later than Tuesday. That would send the measure to President Donald Trump for his signature.

There is urgency to move the measure swiftly — rather than add more money to it at this time — because the government’s disaster response and flood insurance reserves are running out.

“If we do not act, disaster relief funds and the flood insurance program will run out of resources in a matter of days,” said top Appropriations Committee Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

Still, members of the Texas and Florida delegations in Congress are unhappy because the measure failed to address extensive requests for additional hurricane rebuilding funds. Texas, inundated by Harvey in August, requested $19 billion, while Florida sought $27 billion.

“I’m pretty disappointed with what the House sent over,” Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn said last week. But later, after speaking to both Trump and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, Cornyn said he was promised that the White House would issue another disaster aid measure next month that would provide much-needed help for Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. A fourth, and perhaps final, measure is likely to anchor a year-end spending bill.

“The victims of these hurricanes can continue to count on our support,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The measure also contains almost $5 billion to assist Puerto Rico’s central government and various municipalities that are suffering unsustainable cash shortfalls as Maria has choked off revenues and strained resources. Another $150 million would help Puerto Rico with the 10 percent match required for Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief.

More than one-fourth of the island’s residents don’t have potable running water and just 17 percent have electricity, according to FEMA. Just 392 miles of Puerto Rico’s 5,073 miles of roads are open. Conditions in the U.S. Virgin Islands are bad as well, with widespread power outages.

But Trump last week graded his response to the Puerto Rico disaster a 10 on a scale of 10.

“President Trump seems more concerned about claiming credit for a job well done than the actual situation on the ground deserves, particularly in Puerto Rico,” Leahy said. “This is the hard part of governing. This is where we roll up our sleeves, we dig in for the long haul, we stop patting ourselves on the back.”

The measure currently before the Senate contains $577 million for wildfires out West that forced agencies to tap other reserves for firefighting accounts and FEMA money for the disastrous fires in northern California.

Republicans dragged their feet last year on modest requests by former President Barack Obama to combat the Zika virus and help Flint, Michigan, repair its lead-tainted water system. But they are moving quickly to take care of this year’s alarming series of disasters, quickly passing a $15.3 billion relief measure last month and signaling that another installment is coming next month.

Damage is still being assessed and final cost estimates for recovering and rebuilding from this year’s hurricane season are not in yet. Some House conservatives are becoming restive at the high price tag for the spate of disasters, which come as the deficit is growing.

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