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Senate in bipartisan vote OKs $15B in hurricane disaster aid

Alexendre Jorge evacuates Ethan Colman, 4, from a

Alexendre Jorge evacuates Ethan Colman, 4, from a neighborhood inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Houston. Credit: AP / Charlie Riedel

WASHINGTON — The Senate Thursday approved, in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, a package of more than $15 billion in disaster aid for victims of Harvey and prospectively for Hurricane Irma, combined with a short extension of federal spending and borrowing authority.

By a vote of 80-17 by Democrats and most Republicans, the Senate sent back to the House a substantially changed version of the $7.9 billion Harvey emergency-disaster assistance the lower chamber approved Wednesday. The House is expected to pass the new package Friday over some conservative Republican objections as emergency accounts run out of money and Hurricane Irma heads for the East Coast.

Late Wednesday, with Irma wreaking destruction as it headed to Florida, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) added $7.4 billion in community development block grants to the Trump administration’s initial request for $7.9 billion.

The $15.3 billion aid package also is crafted in such a way to free up another $7 billion in Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief funds.

The legislative package is a result of a deal President Donald Trump struck Wednesday with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a meeting with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders.

McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) were surprised by the deal, which Pelosi said came out of an intense, lengthy discussion. But McConnell and Ryan said they accepted what Ryan called Trump’s “game call.”

Meanwhile, Schumer in that meeting suggested to Trump that it’s time to get rid of the congressional votes on the debt ceiling, possibly as part of the legislation that will be needed in December, an idea the president and Vice President Mike Pence liked, according to a person familiar with the meeting.

Pelosi said at her morning news conference: “The president even suggested, ‘Has anybody ever thought about eliminating this vote?’ And we said, ‘We’ll take it back to our caucus.’ ”

As McConnell opened debate on the funding bill Thursday, he said, “It will provide certainty and stability for first responders, state officials, and the many others involved in preparing for and recovering from these storms, with critically needed emergency resources that will not be interrupted by the prospect of a shutdown or default.”

Schumer also urged support for the bill, saying it was a “ray of hope” for bipartisanship in the Senate, which for several years has been gridlocked in partisan maneuvering and battles.

The legislation adds to the disaster aid an extension of current spending and an increase in the federal debt limit from the beginning of the new fiscal year, on Oct. 1, through Dec. 8, pushing a major deadline to keep the government open and solvent at the end of the year.

Conservative Republicans attacked the package deal.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) proposed a measure to pay for the aid package by cutting foreign aid accounts, but the Senate tabled it in an 87-10 vote. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) offered a motion to remove the debt limit language, but the Senate tabled that measure 72-25.

The Senate overcame a filibuster 79-18 before holding the final vote.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also opposed the use of a continuing resolution as a short-term federal spending bill because he said it inflicts harm on the armed forces and the men and women in uniform.

In the House, conservative Republicans already have declared they will oppose the Senate version of the legislative package on disaster aid, federal spending and borrowing authority.

“While some have advocated for a ‘clean’ debt limit increase, this would simply increase the borrowing authority of the government while irresponsibly ignoring the urgency of reforms,” Republican Study Committee chairman Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) wrote in a letter to Ryan.

“Worse yet is attaching the debt limit to legislation that continues the status quo or even worsens the trajectory on spending, such as the deal announced yesterday by the President and Congressional Leadership,” Walker wrote.

With AP

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