House, Senate Confront Disaster Relief but Result Still Uncertain

The House bill would give $17.2 billion to areas affected by recent natural disasters. The measure's similar to one passed in January, but adds $3 billion for subsequent floods in the Midwest and tornadoes in the South.

by Lindsey McPherson, CQ-Roll Call / May 6, 2019
AP/Scott P. Yates

(TNS) — Senate appropriators hope to wrap up negotiations this week on a bipartisan disaster relief package that can get President Donald Trump’s support, while House Democrats plan to forge ahead with a vote on their own preferred proposal.

The House bill would provide $17.2 billion in aid to areas affected by recent natural disasters. The measure is similar to one the chamber passed in January, but it includes an additional $3 billion to address subsequent floods in the Midwest and tornadoes in the South.

Other additions to the House measure from January include $1.5 billion for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers construction projects that would reduce flood risks, $1 billion for Community Development Block Grant funding for rebuilding efforts, and $500 million for the Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Conservation Program to assist farmers and ranchers whose land was damaged.

Senate Republicans and Trump oppose the House measure because they feel it includes too much money for Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory they believe hasn’t wisely spent the funds already provided since two devastating hurricanes in 2017.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby and ranking Democrat Patrick J. Leahy are expected to meet again Monday afternoon to discuss a possible compromise. Even if they reach one, it’s not clear whether Trump or House Democrats would support it, making a resolution this week still questionable.

Trump has a campaign rally scheduled for Wednesday evening in Panama City Beach, Florida, on the panhandle — a region still dealing with the damage from last fall’s Hurricane Michael.

The House is also using its disaster bill as a vehicle to extend the National Flood Insurance Program through Sept. 30. The program is scheduled to expire this month absent congressional action.

Another bill House Democrats are planning to vote on would block the Trump administration from implementing its guidance allowing states to offer health insurance plans that do not meet the requirements of the 2010 health care law.

The administration’s guidance for such Section 1332 waivers encourages states to offer short-term plans and association health plans, which Democrats have called “junk” insurance plans that won’t provide coverage for pre-existing conditions.

This vote would come on the heels of the Justice Department filing a brief last week, asking the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to strike down the entire 2010 law.

Meanwhile, the main business of the Senate is — once again — confirming more of the president’s nominees, including two choices for the New York-based federal appeals court.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has also moved to limit debate on three pending nominees for the Export-Import Bank, lining up midweek votes.

The board of the Ex-Im Bank has gone without a quorum since early 2015, limiting its authority to approve transactions to those under $10 million, a reality that has led to a significant reduction in business for the finance agency.

Confirming the three nominees now in line for floor consideration — Kimberly A. Reed as president, and former Alabama Rep. Spencer Bachus and Judith DelZoppo Pryor as board members — would reconstitute the quorum.

Critics of the bank, including Shelby, did not request a roll call vote during the Banking Committee markup, but loud "no" votes could be heard in the room.

Off the floor, eyes will continue to be on the House and Senate Judiciary committees’ continued response to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham said the issue is over for him, but the South Carolina Republican will likely be waiting on a response from Mueller to a letter he sent Friday. In it, Graham asked the special counsel whether he wants to testify about a conversation he had with Attorney General William Barr after Barr released his initial conclusions of Mueller’s probe. That was the subject of much speculation at Barr’s Senate Judiciary hearing last week.

“Please inform the Committee if you would like to provide testimony regarding any misrepresentation by the Attorney General of the substance of that phone call,” Graham wrote.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, meanwhile, is far from done examining the Mueller report. The New York Democrat is still trying to get Barr to respond to his subpoena asking the attorney general to give Congress the full, unredacted version and underlying investigatory materials.

Barr deliberately missed the subpoena’s May 1 deadline, but Nadler is giving him one last shot to comply or attempt to reach a compromise accommodation by Monday at 9 a.m.

“If the (Justice) Department persists in its baseless refusal to comply with a validly issued subpoena, the committee will move to contempt proceedings and seek further legal recourse,” Nadler said in a Friday letter to Barr.

If Nadler commences contempt proceedings this week, it will almost certainly overshadow anything else happening in Congress.

Hearing highlights The Senate’s most notable hearing for the week might come Tuesday morning, when the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee holds a hearing on the FBI budget for fiscal 2020, with both an open and closed session scheduled with Director Christopher Wray.

Since the House doesn’t return for legislative business until Tuesday, three House subcommittees are taking the time away from Washington on Monday to host field hearings.

The House Administration Subcommittee on Elections will hold a hearing on voting rights and election administration in Broward County, Florida, where equipment breakdowns and ballot issues led to multiple vote recounts in the 2018 election.

In New York City, the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism will discuss efforts to counter the terror threat there. More locally, the Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations will hold a hearing titled “Government Shutdowns: Contract Killers” in Fairfax, Virginia.

Back in Washington on Wednesday, the full House Administration panel will hold a hearing on election security. Also that day, the Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on the rise of domestic terrorism, while the Ways and Means panel will examine paid family leave policies.

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