Ending months of wrangling over billions of dollars in aid for victims of hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, Congress struck a deal Thursday with President Donald Trump on a $19.1 billion aid package, which includes extra relief money for Puerto Rico, but not several billion for border security efforts sought by the President.
"We have been working on this package for several months, and I am pleased to say that help is finally on the way," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), as the Senate voted 85-8 to approve the plan, and send it back to the House for final action.
The plan includes $600 million in food aid for Puerto Rico, along with an additional $304 million in housing assistance for the island, as President Trump backed off his opposition to extra aid for the island.
"Puerto Rico has to be treated fairly - and they are," Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer told reporters.
The compromise plan also includes over $3 billion to repair military bases in Florida, North Carolina and Nebraska which were damaged by disasters, and over $3 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers to repair damaged waterways infrastructure.
I want to thank @realDonaldTrump for breaking the gridlock and getting this disaster relief to Americans who so desperately need it. We have been working on this package for several months, and I am pleased to say that help is finally on the way. https://t.co/1pUfyqNWuY— Richard Shelby (@SenShelby) May 23, 2019
The details of the final agreement were just slightly different from a disaster aid package approved earlier in May by the House - that $19.1 billion plan was opposed by President Trump and a majority of GOP lawmakers.
"Now, let's get this bill to the President's desk ASAP," said Rep. Cindy Axne (D-IA), whose home state has been hit hard by flooding.
Ironically, the vote took place in the Senate as a severe storm rolled through the city, setting off alarms inside the Capitol, as police told tourists, reporters, and staffers to shelter in place.
After the vote, Republicans praised the agreement, and the work of the President.
“For Florida, this is a big day,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), as the bill included $1.2 billion to help rebuild Tyndall Air Force Base, which was leveled last year by Hurricane Michael.
“I just want to tell you how grateful I am to the President,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), as Republicans repeatedly said Mr. Trump had 'broken the logjam' on the disaster bill.
Democrats saw it much differently, as they argued if the President had stayed out of the negotiations, the disaster aid would have been agreed to long ago.
“He's an erratic, helter-skelter, get nothing done President,” said Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer. “If he stays out of it and lets us work together, we might get some things done.”
First time I’ve heard tornado sirens going on in Capitol; urging people to shelter in place. Senators voting now and will soon vote, coincidentally, on disaster aid— Manu Raju (@mkraju) May 23, 2019
The eight Senators who voted against the bill were all Republicans - Blackburn (TN), Braun (IN), Crapo (ID), Lee (UT), McSally (AZ), Paul (KY), Risch (ID), and Romney (UT).
The bill would also extend the life of the National Flood Insurance Program, giving lawmakers several more months to consider reforms to the program, which has run up close to $40 billion in losses in the last 15 years.
The bill also has specific language to force the Trump Administration to release $16 billion in already approved funding for disasters, but which has been withheld by the White House for months - it includes $4 billion for Texas, and over $8 billion for Puerto Rico.
The compromise bill still needs a final vote in the House - that could take place either on Friday, or might have to wait until early June when lawmakers return from a Memorial Day break, as the House had already left town when the disaster deal was struck.