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Lawmakers reach deal on disaster aid for Puerto Rico and midwest, leave out border money Trump demanded, top senator says

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) talks with reporters on Nov. 29, 2016, before the Senate Policy Luncheons in the U.S. Capitol. (Tom Williams/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom/Zuma Press/TNS)
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) talks with reporters on Nov. 29, 2016, before the Senate Policy Luncheons in the U.S. Capitol. (Tom Williams/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom/Zuma Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Thursday announced an agreement on a multibillion-dollar disaster aid package, breaking a months-long impasse that held up critical federal funding for swaths of the country struck by natural disasters.

The White House has signed off on a compromise measure, supported by congressional Democrats and Republicans, that would deliver $19.1 billion in disaster relief for parts of the Southeast, Midwest, California and Puerto Rico.

The package leaves out additional funding sought by the administration for the U.S. border with Mexico, according to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., which proved contentious in the disaster aid negotiations.

“We took it all out. We’re going to try to push that separately when we come back,” Shelby told reporters. “It’s a good deal. This disaster issue has played on for months and months. Let’s hope we can move it out of the Senate today.”

On Thursday, Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., whose state is awaiting federal money to rebuild from Hurricane Michael, called Trump and won approval for a disaster aid plan that left out additional funding for the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, according to Casey Black, a spokesperson for Perdue.

Top Democratic negotiations, such as Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., cheered news of the agreement.

“Chairman Lowey is pleased that President Trump and Republicans have agreed to bipartisan, comprehensive disaster relief legislation that will meet urgent needs across the country,” said Evan Hollander, a spokesman for Lowey. “If the Senate passes the legislation today, House Democrats support clearing it through the House as soon as possible.”

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The congressional deadlock has stalled support for victims of wildfires in California and other western states, southeastern residents hurt by hurricanes, Midwestern states that faced historic flooding earlier this year, and other areas. In Puerto Rico, more than 1 million residents have seen their food stamp payments cut after the program’s emergency funding expired in March.

It appeared earlier Thursday that negotiations were on the brink of failure.

At a news conference on Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the Senate should take up legislation already passed by the House but opposed by the White House. Earlier this month, the House passed a disaster aid bill that included more generous support for Puerto Rico, a package that won the support of all of the chamber’s Democrats and 34 Republicans.

“That’s sitting over at the Senate. They could well just pass it and send it to the president,” Pelosi said, adding that the Trump administration’s conditions for border funding are “unacceptable.”

“[Democrats] understand our responsibility to protect our border, but what they’re doing is just not right,” she said,

The disaster bill has been pending since last year, and the slow pace of talks has frustrated lawmakers of both parties, especially since past disaster bills have often been bipartisan and rarely suffered the lengthy delays or level of partisan rancor that has afflicted this one.

But Trump’s opposition to sending more money to Puerto Rico led to months of squabbles and delays, and as time passed, more issues arose to complicate talks.

These included disputes among Republicans as the White House and House Republicans opposed efforts by Shelby to include a provision related to a harbor maintenance fund that could benefit the port of Mobile, Alabama, and elsewhere.

Trump has spent months complaining about fiscal mismanagement by the leaders of Puerto Rico and has drastically inflated the sums that have been sent to the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which devastated communities there and killed thousands of people in 2017.

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The Washington Post’s Erica Werner and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

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