/McConnell promises disaster aid vote as negotiations narrow

McConnell promises disaster aid vote as negotiations narrow

Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he will hold a vote next week on a disaster aid package that has been stalled since December. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Congress is close to unlocking billions of dollars in disaster relief for ailing communities, if only negotiators can get beyond demands from three of the most powerful men in Washington.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell committed Tuesday afternoon to holding a vote next week on the multibillion-dollar aid package that has been held up since December, saying he is not willing to “send members of either party home without some action” on the issue before Congress’ weeklong Memorial Day recess.

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The majority leader said “hopefully” senators will vote on a deal that “the president will sign.”

The legislation to deliver at least $17 billion for communities recovering from hurricanes, wildfires and flooding has been stymied for months over major disagreements about aid for Puerto Rico, with Democrats insisting on more money and President Donald Trump declaring the territory unfit to manage extra federal funds. Now, more ancillary disputes are occupying deal-makers as they work to strike a compromise, despite lingering pet requests from McConnell, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and the president himself.

Lawmakers racing to wrap up the bill this week must decide whether to include provisions McConnell seeks to ensure hemp farmers qualify for crop insurance by 2020, language Shelby wants for freeing up billions of dollars in harbor maintenance funds and cash Trump is after to handle the influx of immigrants at the southern border.

Negotiators said Tuesday that the biggest points of contention are nearly resolved after months of protracted negotiations, with both sides agreeing now to provide Puerto Rico with hundreds of millions in additional funding.

“We’re about that close,” Shelby said Tuesday, holding up his thumb and forefinger to signal a couple inches of space.

Himself a chief negotiator on the disaster package, Shelby reiterated his desire this week to add language that would ensure money that is supposed to go to harbor maintenance doesn’t get raided for other purposes and actually benefits ports and harbors — a major parochial interest in his home state of Alabama.

Negotiations are still hung up on politically charged issues like the president’s request for emergency money to respond to the surge of Central American immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, with top White House aides paying lawmakers a visit Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, will meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi next week about immigration and border security issues, according to a senior House aide. The meeting, which DHS requested, will mark a key first step for House Democratic leaders as they attempt to navigate the tricky politics of approving additional immigration funding.

None of the emergency funds the Trump administration has requested for handling the inflow of immigrants would be used for construction of a border wall, according to the White House. But Democrats are unlikely to support any funding tacked onto a disaster relief bill for additional Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds.

Funding to help federal agencies address the needs of families and unaccompanied children puts Democrats in a tougher spot, however.

The White House budget office has warned that some programs, including the Office of Refugee Resettlement that deals with unaccompanied immigrant children, face “a significant likelihood” of exhausting funding by June.

Without more cash, the administration has warned that the Department of Health and Human Services might need to reshuffle funding from other crucial programs, such as efforts to combat human trafficking.

“If Congress fails to provide HHS this additional funding, the expected continuation of current trends may require HHS to divert significant resources from other programs that serve vulnerable populations — such as refugees and victims of trafficking and torture,” the administration wrote in its funding request earlier this month.

Any broader border deal will need the blessing of House Democrats’ progressive wing, which has fiercely opposed the White House’s border policies. Many Democrats, including firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), have already vowed to refuse any new funding for DHS.

Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.