Disaster Aid Package Dies in U.S. Senate After Passing House

by | December 22, 2017

By Carolyn Lochhead

Congress averted a government shutdown Thursday by approving a short-term spending bill, but an $81 billion disaster aid bill died in the Senate after winning passage in the House.

The vote on the spending bill was taken as Congress rushed to complete their work before the Christmas break. Lawmakers faced a Friday midnight deadline on a spending bill to keep government operating. The temporary bill will keep the government open until Jan. 19.

The disaster relief bill to help California, the gulf states and Puerto Rico to recover from the devastating effects of wildfires and hurricanes was shot down for the year when the Senate refused to take it up. The legislation had been under fire from conservatives, who said it was too expensive.

Earlier in the afternoon, the House passed the disaster bill on a vote of 261-169 with little support from Bay Area House Democrats, who were eager for relief for their state but furious over how Republicans have handled recent legislation. Among them were the passage of a GOP tax bill heavily favoring the wealthy and corporations, lack of action before the break on young immigrants who are losing their legal status and many other issues.

Some criticism focused on concerns over funding relief for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Republicans said the relief bill is the largest ever passed by Congress, bringing total disaster spending for the year to an astonishing $133 billion. Conservative Republicans balked at the price tag and wanted the spending offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget.

The bill is aimed at assisting recovery from three big hurricanes that struck Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands this fall and enormous fires in California that struck the Wine Country in October and then coastal Southern California this month, during what normally is the rainy season.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said the bill "doesn't treat the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico fairly, and the overall dollars may well be inadequate if you include all the need in all the disaster areas."

But Huffman, whose district includes areas struck by the Wine Country fires, voted for the bill.

The dollar figure, he said "is substantial. It takes us a long way to getting our needs met."

Republicans had just passed a tax bill that will add a minimum of $1 trillion to the national debt, said Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, yet they sought Democratic votes to pass disaster aid because their own members balked at the price tag.

Republicans have "created this ridiculous world that they live in, and because we are here too, we have to try to navigate it when they need our votes," he said. "But they only come to us when they don't want to take a stand."

DeSaulnier, who voted for the disaster aid, said passage of the tax bill without Democratic input made the decision harder for Democrats. "The fact that the atmosphere is so poisoned because of what we just went through makes every single thing more difficult to do," DeSaulnier said.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who fought to get relief for the Wine Country fires, said many Democrats were upset at the lack of action on health care funding for children, protecting young immigrants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program known as DACA, and other issues. Failure to act on the young immigrants, "is inexcusable, so you can certainly understand why people were upset about this," Thompson said.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Fremont, said he took what he called a tough vote against the disaster aid. He said funding for California was insufficient, and the bill fell fall short of what Puerto Rico needs.

Khanna said the bill showed a "moral blindness to the crisis in Puerto Rico," and came just one day after the House gave final approval to a tax bill that levies a 12.5 percent excise tax on goods from the island territory.

"It's outrageous," he said. "We're treating them like a colony, taxing their goods to us at a time when they need relief. To me it's a moral issue, and a very tough vote."

Republicans said the bill contained significant provisions for Puerto Rico and struck the right balance between the larger requests from the states' governors and the amount the Trump administration requested, which was half as much as the bill provides.

"This is an exceedingly generous package," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida, one of the states hit by a hurricane. The bill also contains what he called the highest funding levels yet to help states prepare for future natural disasters.

The Trump administration, which has stifled numerous climate-change programs across the government has been reluctant to fund such efforts. But Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee said such mitigation efforts more than pay for themselves.

Among House Democrats, 69 voted yes, and 118 voted no.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, voted against the disaster bill and the temporary spending bill. Republicans are simply punting on critical issues with a bill that "will see us right back at the brink of a government shutdown less than 30 days from today," she said.

Other Bay Area Democrats voting no on the disaster bill were Reps. Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto, Barbara Lee of Oakland, Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, and Eric Swalwell of Dublin. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove (Sacramento County), joined House conservatives in voting no.

Eshoo, Lee, Lofgren, Pelosi and Swalwell also voted no on the spending bill.

(c)2017 the San Francisco Chronicle