CHN: Senate Edges Closer Still to Disaster Aid

This could finally be the week that the Senate approves long-awaited disaster aid for the 16 states and U.S. territories that have faced a devastating array of natural disasters, ranging from hurricanes and floods to wildfires, tornadoes, hail damage and drought.

Senate leaders, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have indicated they want to pass a disaster aid bill before Congress breaks for Memorial Day recess this Friday, May 24. And indications are that a compromise is in the works.

Previously, the legislation was held up by disagreement over aid for Puerto Rico, and, in particular, President Trump’s opposition to aid that would help the island rebuild its battered infrastructure. More recently, however, the disagreement appears to have shifted to concern over $4.5 billion the Trump Administration has requested for border funding.

Now, both sides of the aisle appear to have resolved the Puerto Rican issue, after Republicans agreed to more money, although no details have been announced and no deal has been finalized. On the issue of border funding, Democrats appear to support $2.9 billion of Trump’s $4.5 billion request – this is money that would go to the Department of Health and Human Services for humanitarian assistance, for housing, food, medical care and other services for unaccompanied children. But Democrats are expected to oppose other parts of the request, including money that would expand the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds and other logistical support for the Border Patrol, including support from the Pentagon. (On May 17, the Trump Office of Management and Budget sent a letter to Congressional leaders seeking an additional $1.4 billion for the unaccompanied migrant children beyond their previously sought $2.9 billion, saying that the numbers entering the country have exceeded their earlier estimates.)

The disaster aid would include $600 million in desperately needed Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) funding for Puerto Rico. Some 1.35 million low-income residents of Puerto Rico – more than one-third of the island’s residents – saw their NAP benefits cut dramatically in March as disaster food aid ran out. That number includes 300,000 children.

The aid also would include Medicaid funds for the Pacific Island territories – the Northern Marianas, Guam and American Samoa. Those islands receive an inadequate Medicaid block grant, and the Northern Marianas have exhausted their Affordable Care Act funds this year while Guam and American Samoa cannot afford to provide the matching funds needed to draw down their Medicaid funds.

Earlier this month, the House passed a $19.1 billion disaster aid bill (H.R. 2157). The Senate is expected to take up that bill and attach a substitute that would result from ongoing negotiations between Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Senate Appropriations Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-VT).