Prospects for a bipartisan disaster aid package appeared dimmer Tuesday after the Senate’s top GOP appropriator said the Trump administration and congressional Democrats are voicing fresh objections.
“I don’t know of a disaster aid bill in recent years that has been this protracted,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby told reporters.
“We keep working on it and working on it and working on it,” Shelby said. “It’s got some obstacles — some of them coming from the White House, some of them coming from the Democrats.”
The Trump administration wants the package to include $4.5 billion in additional border-related spending it requested last week, but that’s a nonstarter with Democrats, according to the Alabama Republican.
“That’s something the Democrats have signaled they are not interested in at all,” he said. Shelby added some policy requests from Democrats are “not acceptable” to Republicans, without going into detail.
“The Democrats want some [items] we don’t want, we want some they don’t want, the president wants some that the Democrats don’t want. It’s a merry-go-round,” Shelby said of the disaster aid negotiations. “It’s taking a long time. We’re either close to something or we’re not. I don’t know.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell downplayed the holdup represented by the White House’s border request. “I don’t think it’s a complication. It’s a separate request,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters Tuesday. “In the past, we’ve stepped up a lot quicker than we did this time.”
Shelby said he spoke with acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney Tuesday morning, and with Vice President Mike Pence during Republicans’ policy lunch in the afternoon about the need to wrap up disaster aid talks and for a bipartisan fiscal 2020 spending agreement.
“[Pence] agreed with me that we need to resolve the disaster package and get that out of the way,” Shelby said. “If we’re going to get a bill soon, it would come maybe by next week. But you can’t put a deadline on it.”
Shelby said if a broad bipartisan agreement cannot be reached on disaster aid, that would signal problems for negotiating spending levels for the upcoming fiscal year needed to avoid a $125 billion cut to discretionary programs from the current year. That’s the reduction required to bring appropriations back in line with limits laid out in the 2011 deficit reduction law unless Congress and the White House can work out a deal to raise the caps that Trump will sign.
“My message is ... if we are not able to work out an agreement on the disaster funding, we are going to have some real problems, I’m afraid, of the big appropriations,” he said. After the policy lunch, Shelby told reporters that “[Pence] fully understands that we’re facing sequester if we don’t get another [caps deal].”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer used his opening floor remarks Tuesday to lambaste Trump for continuing to withhold aid to Puerto Rico residents attempting to rebuild after 2017’s Hurricane Maria.
Democratic and Republican appropriators have been trying to strike a deal on policy provisions in a new aid package that would add new money and require release of previously approved funds in a limited timeframe, in exchange for new financial controls on island officials.
But the talks appear to have hit new roadblocks last week when it became evident the Office of Management and Budget wasn’t ready to sign off on regulations drafted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the release of funds to territorial officials. Schumer cited last week’s missed deadline for publication of the rules in his floor speech.
“Ask the people of Puerto Rico if they’re happy ... with the support they’ve received from this administration. Ask them if they’re happy with HUD missing its own deadline to advance the release of $8 billion in disaster mitigation funding last week,” Schumer said.
McConnell said Republicans are ready to compromise on Puerto Rico aid.
“We’re open to additional Puerto Rican assistance,” he said. “We need to get this done. We need to pass it out of the Senate before the Memorial Day recess. That’s my hope.”
Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.